Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 4)
Sarraute, Nathalie 1902–
A Russian-born French anti-novelist and critic, Mme. Sarraute presents in her fiction a gallimaufry of images, evocative of antecedent sensations, in place of the plot, character, and psychological development around which the conventional novel is built. "Tropisms"—responses to people and things—are the "living substance" of her work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Nathalie Sarraute, as Sartre analyzed her intentions more lucidly than she did herself, refuses to take her characters either from the inside or from the outside, 'because we are, for ourselves and for others, both wholly outside and inside at the same time.' The meeting ground is the commonplace, which 'belongs to every one in myself and is in myself the presence of every one.' Behind the banal words uttered by the characters and their gestures, a constant flight away from oneself toward daily chores, mediocre tasks, insignificant thoughts, and all forms of inauthenticity is attempted. The reader often feels that he is on the verge of some momentous happening which never does occur: the puppets lapse back into the commonplace. An elusive in authenticity, such as Sartre was fond of denouncing, into which human cowardice, fleeing from the assumption of freedom, takes refuge: such was the new motive which lurked behind the brief, ironical sketches of Tropismes and behind Nathalie Sarraute's second novel [Portrait d'un inconnu]….
[According to Sarraute, we] distrust everything; invention, plot, character. The character with a neat label affixed, warning us that he is a miser, the lover, the jealous, the upstart, used to be the meeting ground of author and reader; 'he has now become the converging point of their mutual distrust.' Along with others today, she has declared war against him. Her aim is to explore those tenuous states, similar to those of the particles of modern physics which a feeble ray distorts. She gives the name of tropisms to those microscopic movements of attraction and repulsion that lie beneath the level of consciousness and defy analysis. They can only be deftly, poetically, elusively suggested.
Like most of the practitioners of the recent or new novel in France, Nathalie Sarraute is austere. She demands much from her readers. The mere device of refusing even to ask the Shakespearean question 'What's in a name?' and of designating the agents, or passive, half-sickly observers, as 'he,' 'she,' 'they,' inherited in part from Faulkner's confusion of names given to several characters and from Kafka's half-anonymous men, erects a hurdle of dubious value between the book and the reader. Descriptions 'à la Balzac' are derided by Nathalie Sarraute, as they had already been by Gide and Virginia Woolf; and circumstances of the extremely tenuous action are omitted. All is fake and inauthentic, and must therefore be banished: order, causation, logic, self-analysis, language all are deceptive. As a starting point for a new fictional enterprise and the antechamber to some new palace of art, the therapeutic cure advocated by Nathalie Sarraute could probably prove beneficial. Tropismes, her earliest volume, consisting of casual talks between ladies in a tea room, of insignificant conversations between a decrepit old man and a polished little girl, is a clever series of sketches…. Behind the empty or seemingly harmless chitchat, tropisms faintly appear; enmity and cruelty, envy and suspicion, never thus termed and never analyzed, are discreetly suggested by the author. Those sketches, which never assume the integrated solidity of short stories, were relieved with irony and were varied and short enough not to weary the reader's patience. Her novels, however, do. Professional technicians of the art of the novel, chiefly Bernard Pinguad, have discovered profundities in them, which are only perceptible to professionals. Others, who insist upon not divorcing literature completely from emotional, intellectual, and social life, may not feel adequately rewarded by those technical feats. Proust refused any hint that his tool was the microscope and insisted that it was rather the telescope, through which other worlds were descried and explored. Nathalie Sarraute does use a symbolic microscope to discover what we may perceive at a glance but cannot, she submits, render into words: 'an entire human being with its myriads of little movements which appear through a few things said, a laugh, a gesture.'
Portrait d'un inconnu (1949; Portrait of a Man Unknown, as it was translated in … 1958) and Martereau (1953) do not lend themselves to any analysis of plot or structure: events do not count, characters are not characterized, tension hardly mounts and certainly fails to grip the reader. The storyteller alone has some inkling of the sense, if any, of the book…. The apathetic observer does not discover anything and does not judge. Much subtlety and much stylistic skill are expended by the novelist on thin and brittle material in which this reader, and probably many like him, refuse to be concerned. French wits, waxing impatient at so much garrulous talk around trifles, unmindful of the serious psychological purpose of the author, have disparagingly called them 'sarrauteries,' or innocuous society dances or 'sauteries,' during which mothers, keeping an eye on their daughters and the husbands whom they might lure through their well-bred simpering, embroider their 'ouvrages de dames.'
Le Planetarium (1959) has been the one novel by the author which has been moderately praised. There can but be calculated irony in the title, conjuring up an artificial heavenly vault which shows the motions of stars and planets. The story is certainly laid in stuffy claustration; never a touch of nature and never an intruder from the masses. Even in Proust, servants and elevator boys brought a touch of country life and appeared to be doing something with their hands….
Les Fruits d'or (1963; The Golden Fruits, 1964) is even more totally devoid of plot, character, and motion. The reader has to work his misty way among dim and gloomy alleys. The only external events consist of a man holding a shawl for a lady, an umbrella being annoyingly forgotten, the asinine acclaim of a novel entitled Les Fruits d'or, and equally superficial and ludicrous attacks against the novel by others, or by the same persons who have espoused another snobbery. As a satire of the would-be 'ins' in literary fashions, and of their pompous and sibylline oracles, it arouses a faint smile on our lips now and then. Snobbery, however, deserves a sounder thrashing; from La Bruyère to Proust, French satirists of pretentious fakery had accustomed us to more robust fare. 'He that drives fat oxen must himself be fat,' Dr. Johnson ironically quipped. She who intends to portray insignificance and tedium should probably not banish all humor, forcefulness, and even exaggeration from her books and incur the one unforgivable charge in literature; that of unshakable dullness.
Henri Peyre, in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 363-68.
Sarraute's case against realism [set forth in The Age of Suspicion] is a convincing one. Reality is not that unequivocal; life is not that lifelike. The immediate cozy recognition that the lifelike in most novels induces is, and should be, suspect. (Truly, as Sarraute says, the genius of the age is suspicion. Or, if not its genius, at least its besetting vice.) I wholeheartedly sympathize with what she objects to in the old-fashioned novel: Vanity Fair and Buddenbrooks, when I reread them recently, however marvellous they still seemed, also made me wince. I could not stand the omnipotent author showing me that's how life is, making me compassionate and tearful; with his obstreperous irony, his confidential air of perfectly knowing his characters and leading me, the reader, to feel I knew them too. I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand. Sarraute is right, too, that the novel's traditional machinery for furnishing a scene, and describing and moving about characters, does not justify itself. Who really cares about the furniture of so-and-so's room, or whether he lit a cigarette or wore a dark gray suit or uncovered the typewriter after sitting down and before inserting a sheet of paper in the typewriter? Great movies have shown that the cinema can invest pure physical action—whether fleeting and small-scale like the wig-changing in L'Avventura, or important like the advance through the forest in The Big Parade—with more immediate magic than words ever can, and more economically, too.
More complex and problematic, however, is Sarraute's insistence that psychological analysis in the novel is equally obsolete and misguided. "The word 'psychology'," Sarraute says, "is one that no present-day writer can hear spoken with regard to himself without averting his gaze and blushing." By psychology in the novel, she means Woolf, Joyce, Proust: novels which explore a substratum of hidden thoughts and feelings beneath action, the depiction of which replaces the concern with character and plot. All Joyce brought up from these depths, she remarks, was an uninterrupted flow of words. And Proust, too, failed….
Actually Sarraute's novels are not so unlike Joyce's (and Woolf's) as she thinks, and her rejection of psychology is far from total. What she wants herself is precisely the psychological, but (and this is the basis of her complaint against Proust) without the possibility of any conversion back into "character" and "plot." She is against psychological dissection, for that assumes there is a body to dissect. She is against a provisional psychology, against psychology as a new means to the old end. The use of the psychological microscope must not be intermittent, a device merely in the furthering of the plot. This means a radical recasting of the novel. Not only must the novelist not tell a story; he must not distract the reader with gross events like a murder or a great love. The more minute, the less sensational the event the better…. Sarraute's characters do not really ever act. They scheme, they throb, they shudder—under the impact of the minutiae of daily life. These preliminaries and gropings toward action are the real subject of her novels. Since analysis is out—that is, the speaking, interpreting author is out—Sarraute's novels are logically written only in the first person, even when the interior musings use "she" and "he."
What Sarraute proposes is a novel written in continuous monologue, in which dialogue between characters is a functional extension of monologue, "real" speech a continuation of silent speech. This kind of dialogue she calls "subconversation." It is comparable to theatrical dialogue in that the author does not intervene or interpret, but unlike theatrical dialogue it is not broken up or assigned to clearly separable characters…. The novel must disavow the means of classical psychology—introspection—and proceed instead by immersion. It must plunge the reader "into the stream of those subterranean dramas of which Proust only had time to obtain a rapid aerial view, and concerning which he observed and reproduced nothing but the broad motionless outlines." The novel must record without comment the direct and purely sensory contact with things and persons which the "I" of the novelist experiences. Abstaining from all creating of likenesses (Sarraute hands that over to the cinema), the novel must preserve and promote "that element of indetermination, of opacity and mystery that one's own actions always have for the one who lives them."
There is something exhilarating in Sarraute's program for the novel, which insists on an unlimited respect for the complexity of human feelings and sensations. But there is, for me, a certain softness in her argument, based as it is on a diagnosis of psychology that is both excessively doctrinaire in its remedy and equivocal….
It really is science, or better yet sport, that Sarraute has in mind as model for the novel. The final justification for the novelist's quest as Sarraute characterizes it—what for her frees the novel from all moral and social purposes—is that the novelist is after truth (or a fragment of it), like the scientist, and after functional exercise, like the athlete. And there is nothing, in principle, so objectionable about these models, except their meaning for her. For all the basic soundness of Sarraute's critique of the old-fashioned novel, she still has the novelist chasing after "truth" and "reality."
Susan Sontag, "Nathalie Sarraute and the Novel" (revised version, 1965), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. 100-11.
As one might suspect … the volume Tropisms itself has only qualified interest and illustrates the inherent limitations of a book consisting entirely of disconnected epiphany-like fragments. Mme Sarraute handles the form about as well as can be expected, but it prevents her from doing anything with the tropisms she only permits herself to record: she cannot use them to enhance any general effect, to build up to anything, or to climax anything. They are just there. Presumably, these considerations explain why she has not written a second book like Tropisms. But, as she says, "this first book contains in nuce all the raw material that I have continued to develop in my later works," and "tropisms are still the living substance of all my books."… Part of the fragmentary, unstructured effect remains too. As a result of her de-emphasis on plot, for example, only rarely are the illuminations that her novels record truly major or climactic, like the one experienced by the narrator in Portrait of a Man Unknown when confronted with the portrait for the first time. Rather, the dominant note is of an incessant stream of fleeting moments of awareness: of self, of others, above all of the relationships between oneself and others. In her world, life is a trauma, and few experiences are much more traumatic than other experiences: instead we have a continual sense of the excitement and terror that can be constantly aroused by the most banal trivia.
Morris Beja, in his Epiphany in the Modern Novel, University of Washington Press, 1971, pp. 222-23.
"Subtlety" or a synonym thereof is probably the one word that occurs—and recurs—in every discussion of the art of Nathalie Sarraute. Now, it is true that as a psychological novelist she seeks to reproduce modifications of feeling so subtle and so elusive that in everyday life we are never fully conscious of them. In French she calls these modifications mouvements, a word that … can very often be translated into English simply by the word "emotion" or—more subtly—by the phrase "emotional stirring" or "stirring of emotion."
In the Foreword to Tropisms …, Madame Sarraute gives the most concise statement both of the nature of these stirrings and of the method she uses to render them in her books:
These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define….
"Undefinable" and "extremely rapid" as these sensations are, it is the novelist's task to define them and to slow them down so that the reader may take cognizance of them….
And since … no words express them,… it was not possible to communicate them to the reader otherwise than by means of equivalent images that would make him experience analogous sensations….
It is her choice of "equivalent images" that makes Nathalie Sarraute's work so much less subtle—at least in its immediate effect—than it is alleged to be…. On almost every page one will find a contrast—slight enough at times but very often [so inappropriate as to be] breathtaking—between the banal conversation or action and the imagery used to define the underlying "movements" or "sub-conversation."… She conceives of human relations at [the] subconscious—not necessarily unconscious—level as furtive yet prehensile, and she believes that all Dostoevsky's characters exemplify the same urge: what Katherine Mansfield called "this terrible desire to establish contact."
Only if we bear in mind that Madame Sarraute regards this urge as the "source" of all Dostoevsky's work can we accept her insistence … that the Russian novelist has been the greatest influence on all her writing. Otherwise, there would seem to be no possible point of comparison between his work and hers…. [Unlike his novels] hers are usually short and sparsely inhabited by a handful of anonymous humans who stand aloof from "birth and copulation and death," to use T. S. Eliot's phrase. The most crucial overt act performed by a Sarraute character is likely to be the buying of a house or a piece of furniture, though we are rarely allowed to observe him in the act of earning his living; he is seldom short of money, however, for—in sharp contrast to the wide range of social classes explored by Dostoevsky—he always belongs to the middle classes or to the non-bohemian part of the literary world….
Madame Sarraute has implicitly defended the absence of action and the narrowness of social reference in her novels…. [She asserts] that a tumultuous, Dostoevskian activity does occur in her novels, at least in metaphor if not in fact, at the subconscious level…. In the long run,… her subject matter often resembles that of the most romantic storyteller—but a displacement has occurred [as she would say] from "broad daylight" to the "secret recesses."
So much for subtlety. But the sharp contrast between conversation and sub-conversation—between the highly colloquial yet conventional upper-middle-class dialogue and the submarine, eat-and-be-eaten existence that goes on underneath—is essentially comic. All discrepancies between ideal and reality or illusion and reality are potentially either comic or tragic. When we examine each of Madame Sarraute's novels in turn, we shall see that the ultimate resolution of a potentially tragic situation is benign or, at worst, ironic. Furthermore, if we resolutely swim on the surface of the dialogue, refusing to be dragged into the depths, we can hardly help noticing—especially in The Planetarium, The Golden Fruits, and Between Life and Death, her last three novels—that on this level her work can most easily be classified as comedy of manners. Her study in The Golden Fruits of the passage of a meretricious novel from fashionable acclaim to equally fashionable oblivion has everything in common with the study of the fads and fancies of intellectual Paris presented by Molière in Les Précieuses ridicules or Les Femmes savantes.
Why has no critic, to my knowledge at least, written an essay on the comic vision of Nathalie Sarraute? Why has she herself, in her splendid essays on the art of the novel, which often glint with irony for pages on end, never even whispered to us that it is permissible to laugh with, though not at, her writing?…
It took her a long time to get fully under way as a writer, but from the beginning there has been a firm logic in her development. Her works of fiction can be viewed in pairs, perhaps: Tropisms contains drafts of a number of passages later reworked in Portrait of a Man Unknown; Martereau and The Planetarium are mature examples of her fiction, satisfying many of the expectations entertained by lovers of the traditional novel; The Golden Fruits and Between Life and Death are twin tours de force, dealing with the rise and fall of a novel, first from the point of view of its readers and then from that of its author. Yet these pairs will not remain in watertight compartments: Martereau, like Portrait, is narrated in the first person by a hypersensitive young or youngish man. The Planetarium uses "third-person" stream-of-consciousness technique … like its successors, and also deals to a great extent with the literary life…. I incline to believe that The Planetarium is Madame Sarraute's masterpiece….
[As a] new art form, the "Tropism," is hard to define: it falls somewhere between the prose poem and the short-short story…. Madame Sarraute's book [Tropisms], although written for the ear as well as the eye, will probably always be classified as prose fiction, if only because of its close relationship to Portrait of a Man Unknown.
It may be useful to compare and contrast Tropisms [first published in 1939] with the short prose works that James Joyce called "Epiphanies"; we must remember, however, that nobody knew what Joyce meant by that term until the publication of Stephen Hero in 1944…. Thus there is no shadow of possiblity that Madame Sarraute was imitating Joyce….
Joyce seems to believe that by recording externals with the utmost scrupulosity one can implicitly reveal the spiritual poverty of others. It apparently never occurred to the very young Joyce … that the inner life of others might be as rich as his own, a shortsighted attitude of which Nathalie Sarraute is never guilty. While often capturing externals skillfully, she constantly probes for the feelings underneath….
In her essays on the novel, Madame Sarraute hankers after the freedom enjoyed by the abstract painter, but she has never, in fact, enjoyed greater freedom than in her first book. All her sketches are plotless, all her human figures are anonymous and to a considerable extent characterless; her urban and rural landscapes are [usually] unidentifiable …; indications of epoch and season hardly appear…. Yet she does not seem to have relished this freedom sufficiently to keep from writing novels—in which plot, characters, place, and time are difficult to keep at arm's length….
Sartre called Portrait of a Man Unknown "this difficult, excellent book," and difficult it certainly is. Even the title is ambiguous, for the inconnu, the unknown man, may be either the old father or the younger narrator, or neither of them. Twice in the novel the narrator tells of a painting that haunts him: a portrait of an unknown man by an unknown artist, it hangs in a Dutch museum. The whole painting, except for the eyes, has an unfinished, fragmentary look….
Later this painting is invoked as the narrator's artistic ideal; reading between the lines, one suspects that it also symbolizes Madame Sarraute's ideal for this novel…. We begin to see that Madame Sarraute's novel, which shares its title with the painting, has or aims to have some of the same vital incompleteness, the same anxious groping….
[At the end, it] seems almost as though the entire book has melted away in the acid bath of irony that is its last chapter….
The year 1953 was a significant one in French literature: Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot was first performed in Paris in January; L'Innommable, the third in his trilogy of French novels, was first published later in the year; Alain Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes, inexplicably hailed by some critics as the first example of le nouveau roman, also appeared that year. One might say that by publishing Martereau Madame Sarraute was joining the movement, but it would be truer to say that the movement was joining her, since Portrait, her most radical break with the traditional novel, was already five years behind her. She in turn had been preceded by the even more experimental novels of Raymond Queneau—but it is doubtful whether she knew Le Chiendent or the early versions of Saint Glinglin. Even if she had known them, they could not have offered any guidance to one who was seeking to renovate the psychological novel.
Be that as it may, Martereau shows us a writer in full control of her innovative technique as well as of her subject matter…. [As for ambiguities in Martereau,] Madame Sarraute, I am sure, does not want us to make up our minds one way or the other. For the book to achieve its full effect, the various ambiguities should never be resolved. The experience of each one of us probably contains one or many people about whom we cannot make up our minds. So the argument from verisimilitude—that obsession of most novel-readers and novel-critics—can be used to justify ambiguity. A better argument possibly would be that ambiguity is, if not essential to art, at least congenial to it. A psychological case history pretends to certainty for pragmatic reasons; the artist is under no such pressure to rob his characters of mystery. Besides, if our uncertainty were removed, along with it would go a great deal of the book's quiet humor….
Le Planétarium …, translated as The Planetarium in 1960, is the least difficult of Nathalie Sarraute's novels: many of the characters, for instance, possess both first and last names….
The Planetarium [is] an extremely entertaining comedy of manners: its surface reminds me most of Jane Austen, though its depths are Proustian; we must not forget, though, that much of Proust's work is itself comedy of manners….
The Planetarium will seem to many readers more deserving of an award than The Golden Fruits [which won the International Publishers Prize in 1964], but undoubtedly the latter is Madame Sarraute's most original work. It presents a logical stage in the line of development established by her previous novels….
In The Golden Fruits Madame Sarraute at last achieves the novelistic ideal adumbrated in her critical essays: no characters, no plot. At least there are no human characters, but it would be possible to argue that the imaginary novel "The Golden Fruits" by Bréhier is the central "character" of Madame Sarraute's book and that the plot—or at any rate the story—concerns the rise, triumph, and fall of Bréhier's novel. Although there are no human characters in The Golden Fruits, there are human beings, most of whom have either a first or a last name and sometimes both. But each of them appears only for a page or a few pages, says his say or feels his mute feelings about the imaginary novel, and drops out of sight for good….
Besides the common first names that pepper the book, there are a number of uncommon last names—usually assigned to critics or novelists—that may well have been chosen with a certain malice. They seem like the names one finds in satiric works, and there are certain passages in The Golden Fruits which cross the boundary between stylized realism and caricature, between comedy of manners and satire….
A further question naturally arises: is this book a roman à clef—do most of the critics and novelists mentioned have recognizable living counterparts? So far as I know, no French critic has suggested the possibility. Indeed, the accepted view of Nathalie Sarraute as an ultra-serious writer seems to preclude the mere asking of such a question. Again, I am suspicious. I have already used the word "caricature": in one passage in particular I see a lampoon either on two living critics or on two imagined exponents of recent trends in French "highbrow" criticism. Other critics and the salon amateurs in the book employ the traditional vocabulary of literary appreciation in France, but this pair engage in a dialogue that seems well rehearsed, using the vocabulary of the new "structural criticism"…. [In] either French or English the meaning of this duet must be opaque, except possibly to convinced "structuralists." Now that existentialism has gone out of fashion, structuralism is the all-purpose password in French intellectual circles….
[Between Life and Death exemplifies] the Sarraute doctrine of the undifferentiated unity of human nature, as expounded in the essay "The Age of Suspicion." In fact, the whole novel preaches it. Every man or woman whose environment makes it possible for him or her to become a moderately successful novelist will have the same experiences and play the same roles. The very anonymity of the protagonist in Between Life and Death enables us to identify with him and assures us that we would be he under the same circumstances….
In following the development of Nathalie Sarraute as a novelist, we have seen her begin with an ambition to rival Dostoevsky in his exploration of the obscure depths of human motivation. Then, as she gained mastery of her craft, her feminine humor and acute observation of the surface of upper-middle-class life seemed to be taking her out of the Dostoevskian depths into that well-lit drawing room where Jane Austen presides over the comedy of manners. But in her latest book, even as her humor and irony play over the contradictions and absurdities of the literary life, we see her filling her lungs and readying herself for the plunge. Suddenly, she is down below with Dostoevsky again, searching in the murky depths for those authentic yet unidentifiable impulses toward truth that redeem, even when they cannot excuse, all the petty vanities of the creative writer.
Vivian Mercier, "Nathalie Sarraute: From Jane Austen to Dostoevsky," in his The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971 by Vivian Mercier), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 104-64.
Mme Sarraute sees human reality as consisting of myriads of tiny impulses—the famous "tropisms." Some merge together to form streams of emotion, others die out before they reach the level of consciousness, others again oscillate indecisively as "person" comes into contact with "person," either in silence, in speech, or—as is often the case in this book [Do You Hear Them?]—in laughter. The word "person" has to be put with inverted commas, because the relationship of the subjective consciousness to the inarticulate behind it or beneath it is just as uncertain as any interpersonal connection. I can tell myself what I am only by means of words taken from the Not-I, that linguistic element in which my mental lungs breathe, just as my physical lungs have to operate in the general atmosphere.
But whereas the oxygen in the physical atmosphere is perpetually renewed, the linguistic atmosphere on which the mind depends is constantly going dead, because given words—"mass-produced words, ready-to-wear words that are already worn to a shred"—can never correspond exactly to the complex novelty of the fresh psychological moment. This is a never-ending complaint with Mme Sarraute. On the one hand, she is constantly dissatisfied with words, because they are always inadequate; on the other hand, she has nothing but words with which to lament their inadequacy and to struggle toward a formulation….
What a Sarraute novel presents us with … is a mass of words writhing in dubiety. The author has inevitably to be classed as a "New Novelist," because in the first place, her primary subject or hero or anti-hero is language, rather than anything else. Additional reasons are that she discards plot, linear development, social description, characterization, and definition of the verbal source….
Mme Sarraute's vision of "tropisms" is … of an obsessiveness. The question is: does it always bring reality into sharper focus, or does it not sometimes blur things that a more traditional technique might, with advantage, particularize?… My difficulty in trying to appreciate Mme Sarraute's books, like some other "New Novels," is that they produce an impression of obscurity without corresponding enlightenment. What I understand them to be saying is a banality translated into linguistic or structural strangeness, rather than a new perception caught with linguistic peculiarity. Are they really an avant-garde, or an arrière-garde making avant-garde gestures?
John Weightman, "What's Going On Upstairs?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), April 19, 1973, pp. 30-2.
Nothing would appear to be more of a fabrication than the nouveau roman, of which Nathalie Sarraute continues to turn out her nervertheless utterly personal, crabbed, cranky, grimly literary (at any rate not cinematic!) instances. For Mme. Sarraute, motives continue to range freely between malice and paranoia; the manner is by now as assured as a funeral director's; and the familiar substance becomes thinner and thinner. Between Life and Death is the last volume of her trilogy (the first two: The Planetarium and The Golden Fruits) about French literary life, which she continues to represent as pure murder….
Mme. Sarraute's latest novel [Do You Hear Them?] is all bad feeling and no acceptable product at all….
Marvin Mudrick, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, p. 552.
[In Do You Hear Them?] Mme. Sarraute performs exquisitely in the manner she first perfected in The Planetarium. There is a magnificently comic disproportion between event and imagination, and the latter swells into exotic growth that dazzles with its preposterous elaboration…. As in all of Mme. Sarraute's novels, doubt and distrust—the gnawing suspicion that turns to a consuming obsession—generate savage metaphors and grotesque encounters. The tension between the father and the children (whose age is not clear), so vaguely located between fantasy and actuality, attracts allegorical import: age and youth, tradition and revolution, esthetic devotion and philistinism, high art and Dada mockery, literature and the structuralists. And there are literary reminiscences, if not allusions: Stepan Verkhovensky at the fête in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, Mr. Ramsay and his daughters in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the counterfeiters of Gide's novel. But this is to dissolve Mme. Sarraute's intensity into concepts and instances. What she gives us is brilliant dramatic tension, with all its fluctuation and violent disequilibrium….
Mme. Sarraute has a genius for catching fugitive states of rancor and self-pity, self-transcendence and defensiveness. As in Virginia Woolf's novels the interest lies in the transitions between such states, but in Mme. Sarraute's work the transitions are both rapid and violent; and the metaphors in which the extremes are caught are more extravagant in their heroism or their crassness. Mme. Sarraute is a more ironic novelist than Mrs. Woolf, more ready to see the maudlin and the spiteful, and freer to laugh at them. Her exactitude in recording tropisms, minute turns and shifts of feeling, rules out the direct pursuit of metaphysical depth. She remains the pathologist of belief, serenely detached and awesomely observant.
Martin Price, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1973, pp. 89-91.
More than one critic has said, of course, that the boringness of the New Novel is a feature of its authenticity. Whereas the old-fashioned novelist strove to entertain, to cut out the dull parts where nothing happens and to present even boring people as being amusing when seen from a particular angle, the best present-day writers (like some contemporary film-makers) do not cheat in this way; the boringness of their writing is meant to correspond exactly to the boringness of existence, so that if the aunt in Le Planétarium fusses about her door for pages on end, she is actually intended to be as excruciating as some old dear who corners you in real life. But it is difficult to accept the view that the New Novelist actively intends to bore…. Mme Sarraute speaks of the expression of artistic truth as being exciting. In any case, if the aim of art were simply to reproduce the boringness of life, there would be no need for it; life itself would suffice…. All art is, of course, a stylisation, absolute realism being logically impossible, since life could be totally rendered only by life itself. Mme Sarraute, like every other novelist, is offering us a stylisation….
In the last resort, her books break down into "the good bits" and the traditional or inferior passages which only serve as bridges from one good bit to the next. Fortunately, the good bits are numerous enough to make one feel happy and excited, during the process of reading, at being able to borrow her strength of mind. With the New Novel, I feel that the good bits, such as the visit to the house in Martereau, are too few and far between; most of the time, I am being told the obvious, plainly and minutely, and what I would really like to know about the author's mind is being, almost perversely, withheld.
Something missing in all the books, except Les Fruits d'Or, is a shape (but even in Les Fruits d'Or the shape is not organic; it is engineered from without). I am not asking for an abhorred and old-fashioned "plot", because I agree that the story element is often the least interesting part of a novel. But aesthetic shape means that the artist knows which parts of the work are most important for his sensibility and intelligence. Mme Sarraute's attempt to catch the tiniest movements of the sensibility all the time seems to involve a destruction of perspective. She often appears to be needling away at the fabric of perception to no purpose….
My suspicion is that Mme Sarraute has something to say but that she is not saying it fully.
After all, most of her novels can be read as a critique, monotonous in its ruthlessness, of Parisian, middle-class mauvaise foi—a critique, moreover, conducted mainly by means of interior monologue and, inevitably, the interior monologue, even chopped up into very short phrases, is as dated and as artificial a convention as any. There would be nothing wrong with Mme Sarraute's use of it, if she included in her books some indication of the nature of the "authenticity", in the light of which she is presumably stigmatising la mauvaise foi…. I have to sit and wait without being told what an active form of living might be. Here again, it is not a question of asking for an old-fashioned "message", but of knowing what balance the artist is striking between the various tensions of life. If "tropisms" are pure responses to stimuli, the universe Mme Sarraute is describing is deterministic, and indeed the impression of claustrophobia her novels produce in me comes, I think, from the fact that her characters, however subtle their twitchings, are entirely passive. They never initiate anything; their emotions, which are consistently repulsive or contemptible, wash this way or that without the intervention of any act of conscience, as opposed to mere consciousness.
Now the New Novelists, generally speaking, have eliminated morality as being an antiquated encumbrance…. Mme Sarraute has moral feelings; one has only to talk to her to see that this is so, and her books imply the most traditional French form of social, intellectual, and aesthetic contempt for the bourgeois class to which she belongs. The element lacking in the "reality" described in her books is a most important one: the positive manifestation of the conscience which is passing the unfavourable judgment.
John Weightman, in his The Concept of the Avant-Garde: Explorations in Modernism, Alcove, 1973, pp. 307-11.
In almost all of Tropismes characters are referred to as il or elle, indefinite singular or plural; imperceptible movements take place between these barely delineated characters. Sarraute gives an account of their inaudible speeches, their invisible gestures, their elusive tensions, their unaccountable forces of attraction and repulsion. This hidden world is recorded, without embellishments…. We can no more identify the persons than the action they might carry out, we can barely account for their stress or tendencies. Sarraute who refuses to be distracted by the outer, tangible signs detects constant hidden movement. Change, progression or retraction, remain fragmentary or discontinuous, never develop into a full-fledged stage or into a persistent movement. We witness recurring birth, even its embryonic manifestations, without ever attaining an aim, an equilibrium….
Contrary to Beckett who reduces interrelations by searching for the fundamental, Nathalie Sarraute strips them of everything but habit and contingency. When Beckett's characters threaten to part they are, merely, unable to formulate tangible reasons for staying together. In Nathalie Sarraute's universe useless tensions and nagging constitute the only level. In Beckett, contradictions express a fundamental uncertainty of human beings, in Nathalie Sarraute contradictions … show that our relations amount to a senseless game of hide and seek…. The identity of who provokes and who seduces raises unanswerable questions, not only because of complicity but also because any answer would introduce the notion of origin and give the illusion of a time sequence….
What is said merely expresses stagnation. Anonymous creatures feign to look for reality but grope for nothing. Yet their game never exceeds certain limits, the laws of self-preservation governing the instinctive would never let sources of vitality die out. Nathalie Sarraute suggests the sensuality of this interrelation, stripped of outer manifestations. The poetic qualities of these texts, which show the vibration of a life in which gesture and word, self and others interfere, yet remain invisible, are fairly obvious.
Renée Riese Hubert, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974, pp. 10-11.
In … Vous les entendez?, Nathalie Sarraute draws us down, once more, into the depths of the human mind, which she has explored so intensively now for over thirty years. The continuity of her work is remarkable, yet so is its variety, for each new novel explores a fresh aspect of those ever-changing, ambiguous relationships with others, which are as much the substance of our lives as of her novels. Technically, Vous les entendez? moves further in the direction which has become gradually more apparent in her last three novels. The narrative thread, never very strong and always subordinate, is here reduced to a single sequence, which is repeated time after time through the novel, and its variations reveal to us the characters and the changes in their relationships….
This sequence is the starting point for an exploration of the relationships between the protagonists. Each repetition of the incident brings a change of mood and a varying of attitudes, for here, as in all her novels, Nathalie Sarraute sees human relationships as a perpetual flux and reflux where characters act, react, counteract in the unending movements which she calls tropismes and which she plots so remorselessly, so intimately….
The struggle [in Vous les entendez?] between father and children which centres around a certain definition of Art, marks the continuation of a theme which, always present in Nathalie Sarraute's work, has become more dominant in her latest novels. Les Fruits d'Or (1963) which describes reactions to a best-selling novel, and Entre la vie et la mort (1968) which follows the writing of a novel from genesis to publication, both explore the almost intangible qualities which make one novel a success with the public and another a failure. Vous les entendez? widens the field to take in other art forms and continues the debate which Nathalie Sarraute presents, not in terms of a search for esthetic absolutes, but as a perpetual to-and-fro of fashion and of an elusive thing called "good taste."…
The protagonists have no physical identity in the novel. They are characterized by their words and by the cult-objects with which they surround themselves, but the link between these two, traditionally constituted by appearance and personality, is totally lacking. We do not know, for example, how many children there are, nor how old they are: they are presented as one collective consciousness from which only occasionally a single element is detached, an "elle," who is a spokeswoman and a leader. This concept of character presents to the reader only basic movements of sympathy, hostility, complicity, abnegation, and always self-justification, but these remain currents of emotion which never freeze into fixed personality traits….
Vous les entendez? touches the limits of consciousness and the boundaries of language as communication, yet, at the same time, it emphasizes the necessity for consciousness to affirm its Self and its need for communication with the Other. Father and children are locked in a bitter conflict but neither can exist without that conflict.
Margaret Groves, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974, pp. 59-61.