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.)