Nathalie Sarraute Sarraute, Nathalie (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sarraute, Nathalie 1902–

Sarraute, a Russian-born French novelist, essayist, playwright, and critic, is a leading figure in the New Novel movement. Like Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute believes that traditional literary theories are limiting, and that the novel must be in a state of evolution. Early in her career, Sarraute developed her theory of "tropisms" to explain the workings of the mind. Tropisms are presented in intricately woven monologues and images that reveal the constant flux of the subconscious and the involuntary responses to stimuli that govern our behavior. Sarraute believes that the New Novelists have little in common other than their mutual intent to abandon traditional literary forms and theories, and should be approached by reader and critic individually. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Denise Goitein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clearly, the two paramount problems recurring throughout Nathalie Sarraute's writings are those of communication and of truth. And it is no accident and no surprise to find that her only two plays [both originally written for radio] bear the titles: Le Silence and Le Mensonge. (p. 102)

In their content and approach the two plays are a logical extension of Nathalie Sarraute's novels, even if the dramatic form constitutes a departure from her other writing. In both plays a number of men and women, who seem to know each other well, are gathered for an evening, for no apparent specific reason. These men and women are not identifiable characters. In Le Silence, with one exception, they are not given any names. In Le Mensonge they have names, but names that confer no identity upon them. Both plays are set in motion in both cases by an utterance that has upset the usual order of things.

In Le Silence the man who appears to be the main character has committed a faux pas in evoking out loud a sentimental memory: a "dream-country" of his in the form of a village with little houses, fretwork trimming over windows, bits of colored lace, fences around gardens, and fragrant evenings perfumed by jasmin and acacia. The statement has been made in elemental form, unstyled and spontaneous, a part of himself handed over in crude form. In the sophisticated setting constituted by the gathering, this lapse causes quite a stir. Everyone pleads with the perpetrator: please, continue, how delightful. But do they really mean it? Are they on his wave length? Are they in tune with this lyrical part of himself, which he has inadvertently handed over? No, he feels, there is no real sympathy, no real communication; they just want to strip him naked. The poor man feels ridiculous, trapped—less, in the end, by the vocal insistence of those surrounding him than by the obstinate and oppressive silence maintained by Jean-Pierre. The latter breaks through his own terrible silence only to utter an occasional laugh or, once, even a whistle. The laughter and the silence both contrive to appear as unspoken criticism, a censorship all the more severe since true communication has been made impossible. Jean-Pierre's silence becomes unbearable to all, though it is felt most acutely by the more sensitive main character. It is he who in the end will restore order by attaching to a reiterated description of the dream village a number of factual objective details, pertaining to art history, and enunciated in a bold and clear tone. Jean-Pierre is then ready, to everyone's relief, to rejoin the conversation. The "subconversation" (the poetic lapse) which has caused the break (the silence) is covered over by logical, objective facts.

In Le Mensonge Pierre, unable to condone even a "white lie," has exploded and has told off an heiress who likes to play the pauper. The other characters, used to accepting the polite lies society is built on, are suddenly compelled to question their more habitual behavior. Only Jacques pleads for wisdom and good will—in other words, distortion of the truth, our daily fare. But the ball has been set in motion: they must try and define the nature and value of the truth. To this end they enter into a round of confession games (a kind of psychodrama, suggests one of the characters). The game becomes painful in the extreme when Simone starts playing in earnest. She insists this is no game; her story is true, though Pierre points out the glaring contradictions with a previous story of hers. We are back at Pirandello's To Each His Truth. Where is the game? Where is the truth? No one knows any more. Desperately seeking safety, they try to restore logic. They come on bended knees to Simone: please, tell us you were playing. She yields and thus restores accepted convention. Pierre, without deep conviction, pays lip-service to the renewed social contract.

In both plays silence and the truth represent elements...

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Valerie Minogue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Portrait d'un Inconnu is a novel concerned with its own composition. It draws on many fields of imagery—notably biological and zoological—but it is particularly the imagery of childhood, sustained throughout the novel, which introduces the reader to the core of the novel's preoccupations…. [A] systematic use of childhood imagery serves two related purposes.

First, it is a stylistic device for conveying the fluid sub-surface of consciousness to the reader, without falling into the pitfalls of psychological abstraction, or over-precise definition…. Nathalie Sarraute reaches down to the universal experiences of childhood in order to surmount the difficulties faced by the narrator, and to overcome the resistance of readers who may resent the unfamiliar matter.

Secondly, childhood imagery illuminates for the reader the uncertain situation of the narrator in relation to the world of his experience. This uncertainty is not peculiar to the narrator, but reflects the problematic areas involved in the creation of any narrative…. The defences and refusals which the narrator (whom we shall call N) encounters are at the same time those which adults might offer a questioning child, and which readers might offer a questioning writer. Through the figure of N, in his dual rôle as child and writer, we are able to observe closely the effort to submit a particular, non-authoritative version of human life to the reader, and persuade him to acknowledge it as his own. (pp. 177-78)

How is the novelist, stripped of authority and the traditional props, to sustain the interest of the reader? The answer lies in part in the fact that the abandonment of such props as plot and characterization is not entire. It is the gradually emergent figure of N himself that gives the novel its unity, and his attempt to establish reality—a narrative—is its plot. Although the external world appears decomposed and fragmentary, the framework of N's preoccupations presents a relatively stable world of consciousness. And in this world, N's situation as a quasi-child, baffled and questioning, elicits the reader's sympathy and focuses attention on N's simultaneously literary and existential quest. (p. 178)

We are allowed to observe the physical limitations of the narrator's viewpoint, and reminded that he is neither ubiquitous nor omniscient. We see his dependence on his own experience and imagination for his interpretation of people and events. Further, we are encouraged, by the tentative and self-correcting mode of the narration, to be aware of the difficulties of precise expression. N, in short, presents the drama of the individual mind trying to make sense of himself and the world, while lacking any absolute point of reference to confirm or deny his constructions. (p. 179)

A childhood universe of good and evil (in which the figures are often reversible) is always implicit, and provides the basic imagery in which the movements of emotional life are to be apprehended. Such imagery allows the novelist to reach down beneath the surface of cultural and social...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For over forty years Nathalie Sarraute has been writing about 'tropisms', the name she has given to what lies underneath the words, gestures and facial expressions that come to the surface when we communicate with others or react to their communications with us…. She will not be distracted by conventional ideas of character and plot. She tries to stay entirely in her world of 'the secret source'. It is interesting that among the writers whom Sarraute admires are Virginia Woolf (were 'the waves' tropisms?) and Ivy Compton-Burnett. In an essay in Nouvelle Revue Française in 1956 Sarraute praised Compton-Burnett for her conversations that 'are located not in an imaginary place but in a place that actually...

(The entire section is 479 words.)