Nathalie Sarraute 1902–
Russian-born French novelist, essayist, critic, and dramatist.
Sarraute is often named as one of the originators of a French literary movement which began in the mid-1950s known as the "Nouveau Roman," or the "New Novel." L'ère du soupçon (1956; The Age of Suspicion), a collection of critical essays in which Sarraute announced a break with the traditional form of the novel, is regarded as one of the classic texts of the movement; its publication coincided with a similar announcement by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the best known of the New Novelists. Although Sarraute shares with the New Novelists a rejection of traditional plot structures, identifiable characters, and other realistic conventions of the novel, she and some of her critics have pointed out that many of her connections with the New Novelists are superficial. Sarraute's primary interest is in human beings and their psychological states, while other New Novelists emphasize visual description of the external world, something which is almost completely absent from Sarraute's work. The New Novelists' fascination with language apart from any point of reference in the real world is also anathema to Sarraute, who uses language to explore the real, albeit unseen, inner world of her characters. In an essay, she asks, "What is a work of art if not a break through appearances toward an unknown reality?" Sarraute initiated many of the innovations associated with the New Novel in Tropismes (1939; Tropisms) and Portrait d'un inconnu (1948; Portrait of a Man Unknown), works which significantly predate the movement. But it was not until its tenets had been formulated and gained recognition that these early works became widely read. This fact reinforces the perception of Sarraute as part of the New Novel movement.
One of Sarraute's major contributions to contemporary literature is the concept of the "tropism." As one critic explained, Sarraute borrowed this term from biology to describe "the almost imperceptible movements concealed behind the social facade of gestures, actions and language, the authentic, constantly moving realm of instinctive reactions." The technique which Sarraute devised as a medium for expression of tropisms is "subconversation." Subconversation consists not of unspoken dialogue, but of half-formed thoughts and feelings which are conveyed to the reader impressionistically through metaphor, imagery, sound, and rhythm. These elements give Sarraute's work a poetic quality. In his book Style and Temper, W. M. Frohock defines Sarraute's innovation as the use of imagery which "operates on the level of the first recognition of phenomena, rather than on the level of evaluation, and thus identifies a kind of psychic activity very rare in earlier fiction." Sarraute's writing is often difficult to understand because of her almost complete lack of exposition, her use of ellipses in place of standard punctuation, and her refusal to distinguish between different speakers, between spoken and unspoken thoughts, and between real and imaginary events.
Sarraute has said of her first work, Tropisms, that "it contains in nuce all the raw material that I have continued to develop in my later works." In the twenty-four short sketches which comprise the work, Sarraute explores not only the form of the tropism, which is the basis of all of her work, but also the thematic concerns which recur in her novels. These include the compulsive and often nameless fears which plague everyone, the ignorance and intolerance of bourgeois society, and humanity's "terrible desire to establish contact," a theme which reflects the influence of Fedor Dostoevski on Sarraute's work. Sarraute's first two novels, Portrait of a Man Unknown and Martereau (1960), utilize a narrator and a story line to unify tropisms. In both works, the narrator is a sensitive young man who is obsessed with unraveling the mysteries of other people's lives; he is largely outside what little action there is in the story, yet the novels are primarily concerned with his tropisms. A central theme of both books, which parallels the author's struggle to create a work, is the narrator's effort to construct a reality from disparate, often random pieces of information. Many of Sarraute's works are concerned with the process by which fiction is created. Sarraute's next three novels are explicitly concerned with literature. Le planétarium (1961; The Planetarium), one of Sarraute's most conventional novels, is a comedy of manners that satirizes the literary world. A sensitive young man also appears in this novel, but Sarraute has done away with the narrator figure entirely and relies solely on fragments of dialogue and subconversation. Les fruits d'or (1964; The Golden Fruits), which again satirizes the lack of relationship between literary merit and literary reputation, has neither narrator, identifiable characters, nor plot. The subject of The Golden Fruits is the critical and popular reception of a book of that name, and Sarraute demonstrates, through disembodied voices, the rise and fall of its reputation while revealing nothing of the nature of the book or the character of the critics or author. In Entre la vie et la mort (1968; Between Life and Death) Sarraute attempts to reflect the creative process through an "everyman"-type author. Again, there are no traditional characters, no setting, and no plot.
In recent years Sarraute has published several collections of radio plays. Critics observe that her literary theories and style lend themselves well to this genre; like her novels, the plays do not depend on narration for their development and feature dialogue by unidentifiable characters. One critic has likened reading Sarraute's work to listening through a motel wall to the conversation of people one has never seen. In L'usage de parole (1982; The Use of Speech) Sarraute returned to the sketch form she used in Tropisms to explore the dramatic substructures of commonly used banal phrases, which she uses as epigraphs at the beginning of each sketch. Her subject matter throughout the book, which is unified by the commentary of a narrator, is the significance of language and the superficial way that it is often used.
Critical opinion of the New Novel has often been negative, especially on the part of English and American scholars. The New Novelists are often accused of abolishing many staples of the traditional novel without offering the reader anything of value in their place. Because Sarraute shares with the New Novelists a rejection of such novelistic conventions as plot and character, she has often been the target of similar objections. Critics frequently complain that nothing in Sarraute's work justifies the difficulty of understanding it. For example, Henri Peyre, one of her most prominent detractors, contends that Sarraute's refusal to give names to most of her characters "erects a hurdle of dubious value between the book and the reader." While critics admire Sarraute's use of tropisms to take the psychological novel a step beyond the work of Dostoevski or Virginia Woolf, many contend that the psychological elements of Sarraute's work cannot stand without an ordering of the many details of sensibility which she relates. Another common appraisal of Sarraute's work is that it has duplicated the tedium and boredom of the real world so faithfully that the books themselves are tedious. Despite the opinion of some critics that Sarraute's novels are too inaccessible to merit wide readership, her concept of the tropism and her technique of the subconversation are considered among the few major innovations in contemporary fiction. As Claude Mauriac has stated, "What [Sarraute] says corresponds to what our experience has taught us, but nobody has expressed it before her"; he also calls her "the only living author who has created anything new after Proust."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, 10 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in The Massachusetts Review in Autumn, 1963.]
Not since Henry James have the acumen of the critic and the psychological sensitivity of the accomplished novelist been so well fused as in Nathalie Sarraute. This is particularly evident in her essays, collected as The Age of Suspicion  (originally published in 1956 as L'Ère du Soupçon), which reveal her awareness of the novel both as an artistic craft and as a means of communicating "psychological reality." Here she traces the development of the psychological novel from Dostoyevsky to the present, defines her own original approach to the form and describes the fictional techniques necessary to realize this new kind of fiction. Thus these essays serve two functions: they provide a lucid analysis of the nature and practice of the psychological novel since Dostoyevsky and they also, like Henry James' Prefaces, contain the most illuminating critical discussions we have of Mme. Sarraute's own novels. (p. 544)
In her earliest novel, Tropismes (1939; reissued, 1957), Mme. Sarraute probes the psychic lives of those nouveaux bourgeoise women who have moved from the country to a Paris apartment. Since she confines herself to a single social class, she can treat the psychology of all these women as one mind and show how the innermost thoughts of each reflect the notions of all. Flickering from one mind to another, she grasps those "tropismes" (a biological term meaning the response, usually an orientation, of a plant or animal to the influence of external stimuli) which characterize these women's response to their daily routines. Although Mme. Sarraute's fictional concern wavers between lyrical description and psychological probing, although she has not yet discovered the means or the material to construct an effective fictional vision, she has already defined the direction in which her work will move—the definition of psychological depths beneath the objective surface of situation and character.
Her next novel, Portrait of a Man Unknown (1947), continues to test the hard surfaces of appearance for signs of underlying realities. The narrator, an anonymous "I," tries desperately to penetrate the motivations and characters of the alternately rough and charming father and his "hypersensitive" daughter who live in his apartment-house. Despite repeated encounters and surreptitious spyings, the narrator is unable to crack their external masks—what he thinks are moments of insight are actually nothing more...
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The figure of the writer seems to occupy the center of Nathalie Sarraute's latest novel. The opening paragraph projects the image of a man typing, tearing out the page, throwing it away, taking another sheet, continuing to pound on his typewriter. "Between Life and Death" is however not so much about the writer as about the act of writing. Words are here the true protagonists. (p. 4)
Can one even say that this is a novel? No, if one looks for definable characters, dramatic situations, psychological developments in the habitual sense. Yes, if one believes that it is the prerogative of the novelist to blend levels of reality, to telescope time, to project fears into the as yet unlived moment, to...
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[The central character of Nathalie Sarraute's Between Life and Death] is a writer and her central concern is the "mere complexities, the fury and the mire" of his creative life—the whole thing smacks not of autobiography (too little occurs to justify that word) but of alteregoism. And, as the young Turkish poet Murad Osman-Talaat has written:
… nothing strikes an alteregoist with more horror than the prospect that someone may be converted to his way of seeing….
Miss Sarraute rattles the reader around in this writer's head for nearly two hundred pages without a "conversion," without a coincidence of understanding between reader and...
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[Nathalie Sarraute's intention] seems to be to rule out—not arbitrarily but necessarily—most of the technical props which traditionally helped bridge the gap between the world of the writer and the world of the reader. The goal she has set herself not only is extraneous to those props, but is contrary to them. In two cases, nevertheless, modified versions of the traditional props reappear in Sarraute's novels. Her quest for reality leads her to demystify those fictions which conceal the real. The plot is no longer for her the indispensable ingredient of a fictive work; and the adventures of the tropisms she projects constitute an action that takes place within a single consciousness, but on two distinct levels:...
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Finally [in Théâtre] all of Nathalie Sarraute's plays—even the most recent—are available in one volume…. Together they form a dramatized version of some of the ideas set forth in the author's prose fiction. There is, for instance, the uneasiness of a group of people in the presence of a young man who remains entirely silent. Another gathering is disturbed by a young woman's obvious lie about her past. The third play deals with a character's habit of pronouncing the suffix -isma instead of -isme. What is beautiful comes to be seen as being simply what is "normally" accepted.
As in Nathalie Sarraute's prose fiction, a dissenting voice says that reality is a network of...
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Although Nathalie Sarraute may have been a precursor of the New Novel in many of its aims and methods, she has always held herself aloof from identification with any literary movement or school. She refuses the application of any labels to her work, just as she rejects all delimiting classifications….
When Robbe-Grillet asked her, in 1972, if she belonged to the group of writers (loosely comprised of himself, Pinget, Ricardou, and Simon) who were then being designated as exponents of a "New New Novel," she firmly disclaimed her adherence. Most of these novelists, she pointed out, had experienced an abrupt rupture in their work about 1960, after which their fiction assumed a new orientation; instead...
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The gathering of Nathalie Sarraute's plays into a single volume [Théâtre] allows the reader to note the emergence of certain patterns and themes. The action of each play begins in medias res. As in her novels, where the reader must make his way unaided by the accustomed props of characterization and plot, the background exposition of conventional drama is withheld. The reader/spectator is plunged into the heart of an ongoing conversation, into a maelstrom of swirling tropisms. Since all of Sarraute's plays were originally conceived of as plays for radio, the clash among opposing attitudes and feelings is revealed uniquely in the cross-patter of voices. In each play there is a hypersensitive recipient...
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[L'Usage de la parole] is a delectably austere, beady-eyed book, short and with no word roman or récits on the cover to say that it is fiction. Roman it is not, récits hardly; but fiction yes, and, as always with Mme. Sarraute, of the rarest, most moral kind. There are ten brief sections, each with its own epigraph of some commonplace phrase or group of words.
The first of these is in German, "Ich sterbe", the German for "I am dying" and the last words spoken by Chekhov on his deathbed at Badenweiler, the spa to which he had despairingly gone for the sake of his health. They have the pathos of all recorded last words, but made keener by the fact that for Chekhov...
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Almost reminiscent of the format of Tropismes, the individual pieces composing L'Usage de la parole are more abstract and more profound, less anchored to a particular individual or group, than the sketches contained in Nathalie Sarraute's earlier work. Here the author is delving into the significance of language itself, often deflected from its original meaning by continual usage and habit. In each case she takes as her point of departure some commonplace word or expression, which she then subjects to microscopic scrutiny. It is too much to say that Sarraute dissects language. Rather, like a sensitive turning fork, she picks up echoes and reverberations and transmits them to her reader….
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Like Tropisms, [L'usage de la parole] is a collection of prose pieces and reconfirms that the "primary subject of writing" has been the object of [Nathalie Sarraute's] search. Language is the author's powerful tool, and the word is the true "hero" of this book. Endowed with microscopic vision, she examines the word's reactions to the forces that surround it. Various "voices"—words such as love, family, hypocrisy, friendship, fatherhood, laughter and silences—create minuscule dramas. Spanning the entire spectrum of human experience, these short pieces condense the essence of what Sarraute has sketched elsewhere on a larger canvas. There is the "institution" of the family, in which every member...
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A glance at a page of Nathalie Sarraute's, with its quotation-marks, dashes, trails of dots, broken sentences, clusters of groping quasi-synonyms, and incomplete syntax, is sufficient to indicate that we are in the realm of the undefined. Reading her novels confirms that we are not in pursuit of definition. On the contrary, we move not from the indefinite to the security of definition, but to an open-ended interrogation. The processes of this prose do not dissolve in paraphrase or summary. They are not 'doing' something, they are 'being' something. They are not talking about something, which can be summed up beyond and without them: they are talking to the reader, and saying the something which they...
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Essentially Mme. Sarraute seeks out the first tender shoots of our mental life—more evolved than the undifferentiated static that fluctuates during every living moment, but not yet so conscious that it gets caught and stifled in the rough net of conventional language. As a result, all her novels alternate between clumsy pregnant silences and the impasse of freeze-dried clichés.
This alternation also characterizes the mood and style of "Childhood" and shapes its vignettes. Time after time a section hinges on a commonplace expression that crashes into a young girl's consciousness and becomes the burden of her existence….
Several sections begin with such an arresting expression...
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Sarraute has survived. Among other things, she has survived becoming outmoded, ever since the absolute, irremediable, and final obliteration of the nouveau roman (a phenomenon of the '50s and '60s to which her name, as to a bit of overused flypaper, remains rather irritatingly stuck) from the agenda of fashionable French literary life. No matter: Sarraute was writing before the "new novel" had its name, and these memoirs were among the largish successes of last year's French publishing season. (p. 1)
Yet Sarraute has survived to bring her method to bear on her own past. What united the new novelists was a common trick: They embedded strictly real (that is, possible) events in an irreal and...
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The astonishing thing about Nathalie Sarraute's Childhood is that it takes a style which for 30 years has been associated with the dissolution of character and narrative, unites it with a subject that readers inevitably sense as real, chronological, human, and psychological—just like the subjects of those conventional books that all Sarraute's work opposes—and through this opposition creates an autobiography which seems true through and through. Not just factual and emotionally straightforward, but true to the processes of memory and of writing. As an avant-garde autobiography, Childhood makes a persuasive ease for the claim that antinaturalistic writing is the most realistic writing…....
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