Nathalie Sarraute Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 8) - Essay

Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sarraute, Nathalie 1902–

A Russian-born French novelist, essayist, playwright, and critic, Sarraute is considered an exponent of the New Novel. In her rebellion against the traditional novel, Sarraute has endeavored to free herself from conventional plot and character development. Her prose is characterized by condensed images, flowing as "ripples on water," and by a repetition of prose rhythms, revealing content rather than defining it. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Sarraute's novels convey so stilted and meagre a sense of life that her critical judgment [as displayed in her literary criticism] could scarcely be expected to fare better. Unable vitally to respond, whatever she writes lacks vitality. Anyone suffering through The Golden Fruits, or even the less blatantly moribund Portrait of a Man Unknown for example, must know what I mean. It is next to impossible to believe that every word of them, every trail of dots, every turgid shard of banality, was written not by an over-loaded computer signaling distress but by a single human creature sequestered comfortably and alive presumably for the purpose of expressing something she felt it necessary or relieving or delightful to express. One hopes for her it was at least one of those, and for her reader to put up with it is something requiring a similar kind of delirium. Such as for instance Sartre's laudatory preface to the latter novel, which claims she made "inauthenticity … its subject"—whereas of course that is only its content, for there is no subject. Sartre (who has a pretty high delirium-tedium quotient himself) goes on to talk about her "protoplasmic vision of our interior universe: roll away the stone of the commonplace and we find running discharges, slobberings, mucous; hesitant, amoeba-like movements…" and etc. I couldn't agree with him more. That is precisely her imprecise (putting it mildly) approach to things and defines to a T her prose, which runs on like amoebic dysentery when it isn't merely suppurating. Call it action-writing if you will, the chances are it would look a lot better in paint…. [Sartre] and Sarraute are certainly companions in their loathing of existence. (p. 31)

Gene Ballif, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970.

Nathalie Sarraute's theoretical treatise entitled L'Ère du soupçon announced in 1950 the beginning of a new era in French prose fiction based precisely on the role of the first-person pronoun. Ostensibly a revolt against Sartre and the politically committed or philosophically oriented novel, Mme Sarraute's view proclaimed that both the novelist and his reader distrusted the fictional character and through him each the other. The fictional character was merely presumed necessary as a viable path of communication between author and reader, and almost disappeared as an independent entity in the wake of their mutual distrust.

The modern hero had degenerated into a being without contours, indefinable, and invisible; he had become an anonymous first person primarily reflecting different attitudes of the author. Still, Mme Sarraute opted for the first-person novel as the one most legitimate for both contemporary reader and author. The first person at least had the appearance of having lived his experience, of exemplifying that authenticity which the reader expected. Since it was most important to Mme Sarraute to portray the coexistence of contradictory sentiments and to render the complexity of psychological life, the novelist, in all honesty, should speak exclusively of himself. Fictional "characters," in Mme Sarraute's novels, therefore, surpassed even the Sartrean point-of-view-subjectivities in becoming pure points-of-view projected from the novelist's own subjective concerns, with none of the Sartrean freedom to choose themselves.

On the other hand, Mme Sarraute was the first novelist after Sartre to enlist the reader's cooperation in interpreting the novel as the most significant development of modern fiction….

To write a novel in the first person was the best way to plunge the reader into the interior of the fictional world as the author was already plunged into it. In order to effect such direct involvement, Mme Sarraute transcribed not simply the "I" of normal dialogue, or conversation, nor even the conscious "I" of conventional interior monologue, but also the semiconscious "I" found in sous-conversation, or subterranean nascent states of emotion normally kept tacit. In this way each subjectivity was tripled and at least two subjectivities were necessary to the work of fiction. Although Mme Sarraute's points of view all stemmed from the novelist's subjective concerns on the real plane, on the fictional plane they never had a single center, but continually demanded multiple centers, or several points of view.

That these points of view lost their human embodiment as physical entities and became disembodied "supports" expressing "commonplaces" in a frantic attempt to assuage their "terrible desire to establish contact" (in Mme Sarraute's own words) clearly reflected the Sartrean notion of "bad faith" carried to its dehumanized extreme. (pp. 20-2)

Betty T. Rahv, in her From Sartre to the New Novel (copyright © 1974 by Betty T. Rahv; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1974.

The clarity of [Sarraute's] observation, with its emphasis on microscopic details, creates a series of eidetic images, each imposed and superimposed upon the other, as in a series of layers. These stratifications are never static; on the contrary, they are "amoeba-like" and are in a state of perpetual flux and reflux, altering in form and content, substance and point. Sarraute's tropisms are unlike Joycean interior monologues, which "flow through one's conscious mind." They are pre-conscious incisions, pre-interior monologues clothed in a vocabulary as sensual as Proust's and as incisive as Beckett's.

Unlike conventional theatre, Sarraute's plays have no real plots. They center around a controlled or contrived situation: a conversation or a series of conversations, silences, the manner in which certain words are pronounced and thus given the power to alienate or attract people, the success or failure of a novel, the problems arising with the creation of a work of art. The tropisms or visualizations that emerge from these conversations and sub-conversations frequently unmask the participants and reveal inside relationships in the process of interacting one with the other or clashing during the short periods of a get-together. The tropism is the mechanism Sarraute uses to set her play in motion. The detail, which creates the suspense and brings forth the climax, is buried within these closely knit images and clothed in a sparse but rambling dialogue. The viewer must catch the detail and absorb it if he seeks to follow her into her labyrinthian realm.

Moreover, there are no flesh-and-blood characters in Sarraute's plays; rather, they are faceless beings without identity; so many presences, not in the old sense of the word, with form and substance, but transparencies based on an ever altering world of images. These presences are actualized feelings, concretized sensations, with the solidity and variegated transparencies of a jellyfish. Her creatures are like clusters or groups of vocal emanations, voices with heteroclite tonalities including infinite nuances in their timber and intonations…. Divested of personal histories, of plot, atmosphere, decors, and psychology in the conventional sense of the word, Sarraute invites us to join her in a penumbra—an inner domain of hidden and billowy movements where everything is sensed and experienced on the most instinctual of levels.

The tropism is a catalyst. In this sense Sarraute's theatre may be considered active, dramatic in scope. When the tropism comes into being, it mystifies at first, then delights; later it hurts and may attract or repel, anger or pacify. Sarraute's world of tropisms is a realm that is in a perpetual state of shifting, heaving, diminishing, and swelling sensations. This quicksand effect creates suspense and intrigue, but of a most subtle nature.

The sense of excitement or malaise aroused in the viewer in The Silence or It's Beautiful is not caused by the depth of the themes treated, nor by any Sturm und Drang; on the contrary, tropisms create a microcosm, a world of feeling that incises itself into the conversations, and tricks the protagonists and the viewer frequently into believing fiction rather than fact. It occasions a series of countersensations that conflict with what is considered the visible outer core. Movements are thus set up, comparable to a series of undulations, oceanic rhythms reflecting or antithetical to the atmosphere of the moment, as experienced by the participants in the dramatic ritual. (pp. 16-17)

The goal of her theatre is, as she has stated, to reveal the image or the tropism before it has been altered by the conscious mind or man's thinking principle. These sub-conversations that come to life on an undifferentiated level must be communicated to others on an instinctual plane. It is in this sense that she has opened up a new world for the theatre-goer, one in which preception is foremost: a world of appearance rather than reality, of conversation instead of action, of intellectual travail and not diversion; therefore, concentration is required on the part of the viewer. (p. 17)

Sarraute's theatre is both realistic and unrealistic. It is microscopically precise in that she describes the state happenings in minute detail. But it is unreal in that the outside realm is virtually nonexistent. Because of the finesse of her delineations, Simone de Beauvoir has classified her as a member of the School of the Look (L'Ecole du Regard) along with Robbe-Grillet, Simon, and Butor. But Sarraute objects to this appelation. She claims the members of the School of the Look consider beings as they do objects. For Sarraute "the human being plays a predominant role, the object being the instrument which a man uses in order to express or to hide his anguish. The object is nothing without man who looks at it and uses it."

Affinities, nevertheless, do exist with the writers of the School of the Look. Besides being precise in their delineations, like Sarraute they are objective in their approach and their writings are impersonal. Their protagonists, if one may label them as such, are depersonalized. Yet, differences also exist. Sarraute is a poet. Her tropisms are exquisitely drawn, like fine lines juggled about, pulled together, then separated, with clashing and harmonizing color tones, frequently with kaleidoscopic effect. She captivates her viewers by the sensuality of her images. She benumbs them.

The power of Sarraute's objectivity rests on a kind of Brechtian "alienation" or distanciation technique. She believes distance must be maintained in the theatre between the event, the memory of it, and its entree into the conversation as well as between the protagonists themselves, each one a victim of a powerful solitude that cannot be thrust off. Distance must also exist between the protagonists and the audience. As Sarraute builds her constructs, in rhythm with a rapid or slackening pulse beat, depending upon the sensation implicit in the situation, she creates empathy between the presences on the stage and those in the audience. Feelings of annoyance, anger, pain, joy, or hatred are aroused almost spontaneously, only to be destroyed seconds later as she repels, alienates, cuts them off by altering feelings involved through changing the topic of conversation.

Interestingly enough, both the viewer and the dramatist participate in the event as it occurs. Detachment enables an understanding of the arguments, cerebrally speaking, whereas identification allows the protagonists and audience alike to undergo the anguish, disgust, joy, or hate—the inner landscape. Such detachment-identification sequences are experienced in a state of constant flux and reflux, frequently simultaneously, in a hierarchy of disturbing moods, as one eidetic sequence follows another and replaces it. (pp. 17-18)

Although the themes broached in The Silence are not of vital interest, the patterns the banalities make are fascinating: the harmonies and cacophanies that emanate from the voices, the perfunctory gestures that fill the stage space in web-like formation. But what has been termed by many as Sarraute's platitudes are really anything but that. In fact, her so-called banalities may be very well explained by taking the French word lieuxcommuns (the translation for "platitude"), which means common places, that is, the common places where people meet. Since tropisms only manifest themselves on the outside—in these common places—during the course of dialogues between people, Sarraute uses them as a means of comparison to further explicate the banal. Ionesco lists a series of platitudes in his plays The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, The Chairs, and others, to ridicule or satirize humanity on a variety of levels and to evoke laughter. Sarraute justifies her use of "common places" in that she tries to demonstrate that these tropisms or banalities are really camouflages; that tropisms reveal rather than hide an inner architecture that enables an outsider to better scrutinize the object of his thoughts and emotions. The tropisms that come into view in her theatre reveal the workings of particular individuals and the reactions triggered off by certain thought patterns. What is born within grows and festers in an insalubrious climate. It is just this glob she concretizes. (pp. 19-20)

She sees her characters as possessed of great tenderness and understanding and, in this respect, different from those one encounters in everyday reality. (p. 20)

What Sarraute underscores in [Isma] is the power of suggestion: a trivial detail assumes volcanic proportions. Revealed also is the vanity, the egocentricity of man; but more important is his superficiality when it comes to questions of morality and integrity. Humanity can be aroused with such ease and over so little. Then the questions arise: What kind of people are prone to hatred? What is their way in life? their outlook? their desires, dreams, personality? We learn that anyone and everyone is capable of anger and hatred. One merely need kindle an emotion, then gather bits and pieces of information that will make the fire blaze—until it reaches the multitude. In Isma an all too human situation has been dramatized, and expertly so—the contagious disease called hatred. (pp. 23-4)

Sarraute offers no answers [in It's Beautiful] to the chasm-existing within families and within the social, aesthetic, political, or psychological structure. To opt for the leftist way of alleviating problems is too simplistic for her. To offer any rightist solution would be anathema to Sarraute. Confrontation seems to be the only way in which some kind of temporary harmony may be realized. Authenticity must begin at home. Escape mechanisms are not the answer. Is there an answer?

Sarraute's plays are metapsychological. They take us directly into her protagonists' inner worlds. From this vantage point we are able to observe, sometimes identify, with the "palpitations," tensions, and emotions resuscitated. These infinitesimal reactions—tropisms—are not plotted along traditional theatrical or psychological lines. As they emerge full-blown from their insalubrious climate in words, epithets, clauses, or a series of ultra banalities, they grow and become the center of focus only to suddenly vanish, with equal rapidity, but not before triggering off new groups of sensations that again flow into focus. It is the "common place," the collective aspect of the human experience—man's dependence upon another, his need for relationships, his cruelty, vanity, hypocrisy, immorality as well as his creative instinct—that Sarraute dramatizes….

The sub-conversations and sub-visions are the substance of Sarraute's plays. These protoplasmic emanations, "still brute" and undifferentiated, are built into a structure that takes on an ontological reality of its own. The impressions they create are allowed to develop in dialogue form, underscoring behavior patterns, rhythms, and ideations in the flux and reflux of nature's way. Suspense is created by an interplay between attraction-rejection, interruption-continuation, appearance-disappearance, memory-forgetfulness.

This theatrical mechanism, which has become Sarraute's convention, permits audiences to understand and react to the intricacies of the human personality: the artifices it builds up out of fear, insecurity, solitude, or pain; the masks it wears to hide what is sickly or to regress into solitary or dark realms. (p. 26)

In all of her plays Sarraute burrows into her protagonists' substructures. There she extracts the full import of an experience as human relationships coalesce or digress in clusters, waves, and sound patterns, each caught by her infallible antennae, then concretized onstage in her theatre of tropisms. (p. 27)

Bettina Knapp, "Natalie Sarraute: A Theatre of Tropisms," in Performing Arts Journal (© copyright 1977 Performing Arts Journal), Winter 1977, pp. 15-27.

By emphasizing the disparate, simultaneous nature of impressions and the fluidity and interchangeability of human personalities, Virginia Woolf helped pave the way for that final dissolution of character which has become a trademark of the New French Novel—nowhere better demonstrated than in the writings of Nathalie Sarraute, one of its most vocal practitioners. To a complaint that she fails to create memorable characters, Sarraute would reply, "Good!" For that is what she most wants to avoid: anything that might remotely be said to have a "personality," or a life of its own. (p. 5)

Times have changed; for one thing, the moderns have shifted the primary interest in the novel from character and plot, or manners and customs, to "the revelation of a new psychological subject matter." But neither Proust nor Joyce went far enough, or probed deeply enough, says Sarraute. The people we know may appear to have a finished, whole personality, she argues in Portrait of a Man Unknown, but this is merely an illusion which we maintain as a matter of convenience, or convention. Beneath the polished surface lies one's true self, fluid and amorphous, perpetually dissolving into a series of impulses and sensations.

Wishing to get to one's real personality, Sarraute determined to explore the realm beneath the interior monologue, a region on the threshold of consciousness, where innumerable images, sentiments, and impulses jostle and collide—psychological movements which cannot be perceived directly by the conscious mind but which nevertheless affect our actions and our words. To simulate these movements (or "tropisms," as she calls them elsewhere), she developed her famous "sub-conversation," which she conceives of as taking place on the frontiers of consciousness—actual dialogue being merely the outward continuation of subterranean actions and sensations which cloak themselves in words. Hence, in the Sarraute novel, character is neither essential nor desirable. It is merely a prop for the psychological movements she wishes to study. Beyond that, as she freely admits, character holds no interest for her. She welcomes the depersonalization of the hero in current fiction as proof of the increased sophistication of writer and reader and considers the process of depersonalization similar to that which has already occurred in painting…. As she sees it, the purpose of the experimental novelist is to further that end, to make the psychological element as self-sufficient as possible. "And since what the characters gain in the way of facile vitality and plausibility is balanced by a loss of fundamental truth in the psychological states for which they serve as props, [the reader] must be kept from allowing his attention to wander or be absorbed by the characters." In fact, she criticizes Proust because, no matter how many fragments he examines from the "subsoil" of his characters, the fragments unite to form a coherent whole, a recognizable type, the moment the book is closed. (pp. 5-6)

[In] her attempt to banish character from the novel, Sarraute may have done more for its restoration than Virginia Woolf, who sought to preserve it. For, if they do nothing else, Sarraute's works show how essential character is to the novel and how impossible it is to make the psychological elements "self-sufficient."

Sarraute's first attempt to put theory into practice was Tropisms, originally published in 1939, a book which, according to the author, contains in nuce all the raw material of her later works: a series of moments in which those subterranean movements she calls "Tropisms" occur, "dramatic actions, hiding beneath the most commonplace conversations, the most everyday gestures, and constantly emerging to the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them." This is what she intended to portray; the actual result, however, is another matter: sometimes a simple description of the inner feelings and psychological attitude of her nameless "prop."…

Many of the sketches offer psychographs of universal types…. (p. 6)

Often, her technique comes perilously close to a kind of psychological impressionism, such as she condemned in Woolf and Proust. For example, sketch X, describing the housewives, their faces "stiff with a sort of inner tension," gathering at tearooms in the afternoon: "And they talked and talked, repeating the same things, going over them, then going over them again, from one side then from the other, kneading them, continually rolling between their fingers this unsatisfactory, mean substance that they had abstracted from their lives (what they called 'life,' their domain), kneading it, pulling it, rolling it until it ceased to form anything between their fingers but a little pile, a little grey pellet"….

Tropisms not only contains the essence of Sarraute's later work, it also demonstrates vividly the limitations of her technique and the impossibility of separating the psychological element from its exterior support, or of finding equivalent images to express the inexpressible. In Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau, and The Planetarium, we find her using less abstract characters and at least some semblance of a plot, but, as the narrator of Martereau carefully explains, the attitudes and reactions he has described were actually "expressed not in so many words, of course, as I am obliged to do now for lack of other means, not with real words like the ones we articulate distinctively out loud or in our thoughts, but suggested rather by certain sorts of very rapid signs" which he has attempted to translate.

And in The Golden Fruits and Between Life and Death Sarraute returns to the goals, and the limitations, originally found in Tropisms, both novels presenting universalized types (the reader, the critic, the writer) which serve as props for the subterranean movements Sarraute attempts to record. One begins, says the anonymous writer in Between Life and Death, by setting down words, repeating them countless times until at last what emerges "is neither an image, nor a word, nor a tone, nor any sound … a movement rather, a brief flexing of muscles, leaps, grovelings, recoilings, gropings…." One is immediately reminded of a similar attempt by Gertrude Stein, equally futile ("Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."), to make the word reach beyond the cognitive to precognitive levels.

In her "tropisms" and "sub-conversations" Nathalie Sarraute pushes the fragmented personality and the fragmented vision to their ultimate limits, proving how impossible it is to create a novel without a character of sorts. And her works remind us afresh that while universal types may be good subjects for scientific analysis, they do not make good subjects for fiction.

That Sarraute's primary interest is that of the scientist rather than the artist is indicated by her constant reference to her own works as "research." But, ironically, it is as research that they have the least claim to validity, relying as they do upon an extremely subjective interpretation of the region between conversation and subconversation. (p. 7)

Ethel F. Cornwell, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1977.

Nathalie Sarraute's most recent venture is "fools say"; and I regret to say that it seems perversely to fulfill all those philistine epithets from the old days, epithets that were mainly false then, but which now have become somehow more than partly true. I cannot find "fools say" anything but willfully arcane, mannered, and pretentious, the product of a brilliant writer's persistence in a method that has ceased to suit her. One hesitates to judge Sarraute; several of her earlier and much better novels (The Golden Fruits, The Planetarium, Between Life and Death) brilliantly treat the emptiness of judgment, and of literary judgment above all. But judgment is a natural reflex (dare I say tropism?) of the thinking mind; God knows there is plenty of judgment both in and against the acid mutterings of the—well, she used the word first—"fools" whose disembodied voices fill the pages of her best books. On the other hand, "fools say" is not only stylistically more radical than the earlier books (i.e., harder to read), but it is also directed to the deeper regions of self-judgment. I, for one, am not much impressed by what Sarraute has discovered down there.

She has found a baffled, hurt child's wild insecurity, endless inner debate, and need for love; along with pride and contempt, focused sometimes on the self, sometimes on all of "them"—the "fools" out there. Fair enough: Sarraute has her finger (more or less) on the mixture of desperation and complacency that marks a typically neurotic struggle for self-esteem. But is that all there is? In her plunge into the depths of the self-doubting mind, she has found only the emotions one would expect. And those emotions, because they are disembodied by her prose, lack resonance; they seem almost allegorical. Something is lacking: behavior, action. Instead of the strictly satirical fiction that is her strength, Sarraute has tried for a genuinely psychological novel, and it turns out that the elegant manner she developed for her satirical mutterings is not appropriate to the new mode….

Sarraute's voices have been compared to those heard through a motel wall: we never see the people, never see what they are doing, never know where they have come from. It is an ideal mode for satire. We hear only the empty disconnections; the sudden petulances, the raised voices. Understanding nothing about these mutterers, we forgive nothing—Montaigne in reverse. But if one tries to carry satire to deeper levels of inner struggle, of psychology, the manner merely continues to be empty, and, what's more, we now resent the fact of still richer information withheld.

Psychology entails not only the flux of thoughts and impulses: it is behavior. And Sarraute has long since thrown away action in her effort to distill her style to its own purity. Though she now gives no signs of regretting that act of triage, it dooms an effort like "fools say": the book needs not only behavior, and therefore action, but also, since the muttering of impulse can be disembodied, and only a person can act, it needs characters. Sarraute used to assail the retention of characters in fiction on the grounds that they are false: they are always too statically and narrowly conceived; they are always, when compared to the polyvalence of life, flat. A bas la psychologie!—this standard French posture is one that Sarraute took up in new terms. But there are degrees of flatness, after all, and by refusing to enlarge her manner to include the fullness of action (whatever its flux, whatever its partial truths and confusions), she has produced a novel that is dullness itself.

Stephen Koch, "A Drama of Pronouns," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), April 2, 1977, p. 28.

As someone observed, the French are enamored of profound banalities, and nothing demonstrates this so neatly as a novel like Nathalie Sarraute's "'fools say.'" Miss Sarraute is bemused by the idea that our diction sometimes betrays a striving for status and she has written a high-falutin conversational primer to prove it. Like so many avant-garde French novelists, she is a sociologist and a relentless pedagogue at heart. At regular intervals, we are given lessons in semantics: "And yet it is a word which doesn't look like much, an apparently perfectly harmless word with its 'jeal' that consolidates, and its 'ous' that unites, 'ous' like 'us'…. But you can't count on this, there's nothing trickier than these sound effects…. Remember we have 'jeal' for 'jel,' 'ous' for 'us.' It's all there, in the unpronounced letters, in the 'a' and the 'o'."

In "'fools say,'" technique overshadows character to such an extent that one wonders whether the French avant-garde may not be the Gallic equivalent of technological pollution. Miss Sarraute is a bureaucrat of fiction, less interested in the dramatization of personality than in its classification. In her chic and claustrophobic landscape, one looks in vain for the awkward and endearing grope of human contact. (pp. 14, 41)

A work like this one can be approached only through the prism of a pretentious theory of the novel. And if you should succeed in such an engagement, you will discover only that cleverness corrupts and that, like so many tours de force, this is a novel not about people, but about itself. (p. 41)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 3, 1977.