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....
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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 than imaginative projections. Ironically, it is the narrator's own acute sensibilities, as they play over these two figures, which suggest that kind of perceptive introspection which becomes the mark of her best fiction.
Martereau (1953) is a crude attempt to define that area of psychology her later novel grasps so surely. The narrator poses his own affectionate responses to Martereau against his uncle's suspicions and his aunt's concern (perhaps adulterous) in an attempt to define the essence of this man. He succeeds only in destroying his own relationship with Martereau without ever discovering the truth of the man's character. But already we find Mme. Sarraute capturing the unspoken nuance of social encounters, for it is the barely hinted suggestions, the delicate plots and counter-plots, the constant awareness of the listener's reaction to one's statements, and the eternal anxiousness to please and satisfy which make up the real matter of this novel. Here, however, it is her sluggish words—heavy, static, defined—which keep the novel from moving forward. Only in the most recent novel are these words metamorphosed into movements which generate the form of the novel from their own energy.
The "characters" in The Planetarium  are only named consciousnesses, each speaking in the first person, each rotating in his own orbit until a sudden collision throws him into contact with another and stirs his submerged thoughts and feelings into rapid turmoil. Nathalie Sarraute skillfully expands these isolated collisions in time and in relevance until the universal conflict of rebellious youth and parental authority is constructed. The basic pattern of collision is the archetype of initiation into or rejection from a defined social group. The "groups" presented vary from the writers' clique commanded by Germaine Lemaire, which the young critic Alain hopes to enter, to the familial communion which their parents wish to reestablish with Alain and Gisèle after their marriage, to the "special place" in Alain's heart which his Aunt Berthe must maintain even if it means sacrificing her apartment, to the perfect marriage which Alain and Gisèle are incapable of achieving.
It is not these social situations which make up the novel's texture, however, but the sensations aroused within the characters when they collide. Their spoken words flow smoothly, but beneath are hidden depths of half-grasped, often inarticulate, desires and fears. Mme. Sarraute suggests these barely conscious movements with a slight nuance, a fleeting metaphor, an undeveloped suggestion and, very rarely, an image as developed as the surrealist description of natives stalking their victims in the jungle which evokes the sensation of terror with which Berthe awaits the loss of her apartment. (pp. 548-50)
With The Planetarium, Nathalie Sarraute achieved that new kind of psychological novel which her critical essays describe, a novel which captures those movements which cannot be seen directly and clearly by the conscious mind, those movements which form and disintegrate with utmost rapidity "on the extreme edge of consciousness." She has internalized character, plot and description and has discarded from her form all the antiquated conventions of the traditional novel which impede the flow of these movements beneath and around the levels of spoken dialogue. She has subtly evoked complex and varied personalities and diverse social situations with which we can identify (perhaps more easily than with James' limited "drawing-room" situations). She has articulated the very real sensations which we all feel whenever we are intensely involved in an uncertain situation, the numerous and complex movements that give meaning to our actions and our words. She has taken from Dostoyevsky his sensitivity to the complicated and contradictory feelings which are never revealed in conventional dialogue and developed a new instrument—nothing more nor less than her style—to present them to the reader. But her style so deftly captures the dimly perceived pattern of our innermost lives that we, too, echo the final communion between Alain and Germaine … "I think we're all of us, really, a bit like that." (p. 552)
Anne Kostelanetz [later Anne K. Mellor], "Manifesto for a New New French Novel," in On Contemporary Literature, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, revised edition, Avon Books, 1969, pp. 544-54.
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 transform even the pettiest of obsessions into a poetic experience.
Perhaps it would be fairer to say that this is a dramatic prose poem about words. "Words" might indeed have been a fitting title, had not Sartre used it recently for his remarkable autobiography. In fact, there are some clear points of contact between these two otherwise very dissimilar works. Both Sartre and Sarraute view words as realities that determine, as well as forces that can liberate. Words oppress, protect, hurt, transform, immobilize—and, above all, survive. They preside over our lives and can become an alibi for not living. Literary creation may well be such an alibi. (pp. 4-5)
[In "Between Life and Death" we] come across sentences such as these: "… I'm alone in the enemy camp … defenseless … protect me." "But she resists, she clutches him, she clings to him, hems him in, he stands up to her, they are fighting, they are locked in struggle." Yet all this talk about enemies, tactical tricks, blocking of roads, fatal encirclement, corresponds neither to the presence of Amazons nor to the excitement of actual battles. Whatever is epic here remains at the purely verbal level. But that is the point of the novel. Words are our enemies, our allies, our traitors. They lock us in, they choke us—and they lead us to a manner of freedom.
Viewed in this light, "Between Life and Death" does tell a story. At the beginning, there is sheer sensitivity to words…. Next comes the awareness that words are not merely vague threats, but sharp weapons….
The cruel games people play with each other (in part, to hide their sense of vacuity and despair) create a relentless nostalgia for a magic order. Words, this time, become the instruments of clarity, composition, a superior calm. But this order has its own limits: this peace resembles inertia, it resembles death. Between life and death: the title of the book clearly defines the problem, not merely in temporal terms, but in terms of the survival of all art, caught between life-giving formlessness and sterilizing formalism. Ultimately, the answer—and the salvation—may well depend on the degree of complicity between the artist and his public. Appropriately, the novel ends with a question: "… Let's look together … does it emit, deposit … as on the hand glass held up to the mouth of the dying … a fine mist?"
The tragic undertones are obvious: the sense of separation and exclusion, the solipsistic urge, the fear of life, the puritanical longing for an absolute. But all this remains subdued. What is so remarkable in the work of Nathalie Sarraute is that she can make so much of what appears to be so very little. It turns out, of course, that it is not so little after all, that her novel illustrates a double paradox. It is fear of life (not fear of death) that produces art, and the production of art in turn generates new terrors.
This climate of seemingly petty anxieties, wounded pride, tormented perfectionism, and yearnings for a protective shell, comes across, with almost total directness…. One question, however, occurs to some faithful readers. How many more novels can one, or should one, write in this vein? (p. 5)
Victor Brombert, "Is It a Novel? Yes, but Also a Poem about Words," in The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1969, pp. 4-5.
[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 character. This is partly the fault of the book's hyperintellectuality, even more of its prose.
Maria Jolas' translation is extraordinarily good, in the somewhat extraordinary sense that it accurately reflects a falling-off in Miss Sarraute's style. Her previous work, especially The Golden Fruits, had a witty consistency of tone that now seems shattered; large stretches of Between Life and Death could have been written by a dyspeptic machinegun.
The book's dustjacket, quoting Le Monde, tells us this style is "new, simple in its means but bold in form." It is certainly "bold," if not audacious, in some of its elements—I cannot recall another book in any language wherein so many pronouns do (or attempt) the work of so few appositives. But is there anything original in such writing as this:
Perhaps it's better to wait a little longer, continue to postpone the moment … that it's really no longer possible to resist, that that forces your hand…. That. What's that, after all? Everybody out here keeps on saying it, keeps shouting it from the rooftops: there's no 'that' that matters. [dots and spacing in original]
The fall of day. Poor human glory. Not the pain of trying. Or again, when our material interest is involved in it. As in Inga's case. Yes, her. She owes it to herself. Oh, I'd be proud and happy.
The second passage quoted seems to me as representative of Miss Sarraute's "new" style as the first—despite the fact it was written by Valery Larbaud in 1921, in self-confessed if unsuccessful imitation of Joyce.
David J. Dwyer, in a review of "Between Life and Death," in Commonweal, Vol. XC, No. 19, August 22, 1969, p. 523.
[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: the tropisms either confront one another; or, when they are caught in the nets of verbal consciousness, they confront the external, social, and collective world.
Sarraute's modified versions of fiction and action, however, exclude all concern other than what is required by her initial goal: to intercept inner reality. The game is therefore played between the writer and his double, not between the writer and his public. She is engaged in a creative act that goes far beyond the definition of literature as a universally recognizable art form. Literature for Nathalie Sarraute becomes a strictly personal pursuit, a quest for identity which revolves entirely around the subject's psyche. From inspiration through form to the author's ultimate reincarnation, a loop is looped.
Nathalie Sarraute sets up for herself two very stringent criteria of success: the work must come alive, and some kind of contact must be made. But two questions immediately arise: for whom should the work come alive? and with whom is the contact made? The life of the work is subordinated to tropisms which must remain intact throughout their verbal translation. Tropisms are transferred from the subconscious to the conscious with the help of language. This means that any man for whom an articulate awareness of his deeper self is vital engages in a literary quest of his own. This literary pursuit then becomes a matter of "life or death" for the writer, the life or death of the work being equivalent to the life or death of his own psyche. But in itself the content of a psyche has no meaning for another psyche. It is too shapeless and too erratic; it offers no essential point of reference, no basis for analysis and interpretation. As a result, the more accurate, the more faithful, the more literal even its verbal, or literary translation happens to be, the more opaque that translation becomes to a consciousness other than the subject's. The very qualities of a literary technique aiming at the linguistic expression of a preverbal state consequently become directly responsible for the probable hermetism of the finished product. A second argument reinforces the first: only the author can evaluate the life of a work that sets out to reproduce an experience known to the author alone. Only Sarraute possesses the frame of reference against which the life of her novels can be measured: the initial tropisms that are her models and her inspiration, the personal impulse that gave birth to the literary form. As a result, no one but Nathalie Sarraute can fully evaluate the life or death status of her production.
Contact is established mainly between the writer and her work for very similar reasons. Such contact can come about only within a very closed circuit. The literary form best capable of capturing tropisms does not include universal frames of reference and does not yield to universal recognition and understanding. For Sarraute, tropisms are privileged means of communication, not with the outside world, but with her double, with her many doubles. The consciousness at work in Sarraute's novels is that of a character looking for an author. The contact takes place and the work comes alive when there is a fusion between both.
This does not necessarily mean that contact between work and reader is totally out of the question. But the nature of tropisms makes any subjective form of interpretation hazardous, if not preposterous…. Sarraute entrusts the translation of tropisms into words almost exclusively to images; but Bachelard's intense faith in the communicative power of images is of no avail in Sarraute's case: her brand of "rêverie" does not purport to transcend reality, but rather to grasp and possess it in its entirety. In other words, the deeper the reality which she tries to express, the more subjective the form she adopts in order to do so. The decoding of such images may be rich in possibilities for the outsider; but there can be no guarantee whatsoever that the result will coincide with the reality behind the image itself. The opacity of Sarraute's images is the by-product of a self-contained psyche which must block out all outside interferences in order to communicate with itself.
For the critic, therefore, only one avenue of investigation perhaps remains open: the linguistic, semantic and formal analysis of the work. The reader confronts what is, in fact, an individual language within a code language. The code language consists of very common words, about which Sarraute herself wrote: "I had to create … an unreal dialogue made up of usual words to express what is not ordinarily spoken about. The most ordinary words are used, but what is said is not what is being talked about…." This code language, which is immediately accessible to the reader, does not reveal the writer's inner truth; to the contrary, it constitutes the fictive portion of the work. It relies largely on humor, which Sarraute manipulates in order to denounce the collective myths—mostly verbal—which blur our vision of reality. The techniques that preside over the writing at this level can be analyzed systematically, but such an elucidation leads only to the negative aspect of the work: a void is created, which tropisms will fill once the clichés have been swept away. In contrast, Sarraute's individual language, which is immediately accessible to her, is not immediately accessible to the reader; and its deciphering is an exercise in hermeneutics. Sarraute's literary techniques seem to rest on the double postulate that the usual semantic content of words is deeply misleading, and that reality is best expressed through whatever escapes the linguistic conventions of symbolic meaning. (pp. 32-5)
Sarraute's novels come the closer to the truths she wishes to express as their form breaks more sharply away from accepted formal codes. There is a definite progression in her literary production, a progression that goes from her relatively accessible works like Tropismes and Le Planetarium to her latest (and more obscure) novels, Entre la vie et la mort and Vous les entendez? The earlier works include, if not characters, at least occasional proper names and the embryo of a story; but the expression of tropisms in these novels remains somewhat ambiguous; it owes too much to psychology, to introspection, to the form of introspection which reasons, argues, discusses—i.e., analyzes. It stems from the writer's intellect. The role of the intellect, in her latest works, is much more strictly delineated: as a professional writer, she uses it to choose her techniques and control the structure of her works; she is definitely highly conscious of her goals, of her efforts and of the results obtained. But she no longer allows her intellect to tamper with the raw material she starts from. It is quite possible that the closer she gets to her goal, the greater will be the distance between novel and reader. The reader approaches the novel through the formal deciphering of a work that rejects formalism: a certain discrepancy seems unavoidable. Yet, formalism may well be the most valid approach for the reader or critic anxious to break through the deceptive layer of her code language in order to reach the inner core of her private world. Her work, which sets itself over and beyond style, is nevertheless at the mercy of stylistic analysis. The public is likely to feel somewhat alienated from novels written not only by but mostly for the author herself. (p. 36)
Madeleine Wright, "Nathalie Sarraute: Alienated or Alienator?" in Bucknell Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, April, 1976, pp. 29-36.
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 habitual patterns of group behavior in which the "I" confronts "them" in a thousand guises, to triumph for a moment or to be swallowed by the opaque communal pool that her tropismes inhabit. As in her fiction, each depends on the other; in their minute interplay beats the very pulse of Nathalie Sarraute's art.
A. Otten, in a review of "Théâtre," in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 479.
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 of continuing to "represent" the world, either subjectively or objectively, they tended now to concentrate on questions of language and textuality per se, with a consequent subversion of literary and social structures. In her own case, she acknowledges no rupture of this kind…. (p. 169)
Even at an early period in her writing, Sarraute recognized a distinction between her own position and the tendency of other New Novelists, particularly with respect to objective description. The New Novelists are acutely attuned to the presence of physical objects, endlessly catalogued and recorded in their minute manifestations. While Robbe-Grillet may depict in microscopic detail the movements of a fly on a ceiling (in Jealousy) or the flotsam clinging to the bow of a ferryboat (in The Voyeur), Sarraute keeps external description to a minimum. Where she indulges in descriptive passages (more prevalent in her earlier books, like Portrait and Martereau), these are not related to the outside world, but serve to externalize the inner sensations of tropisms. Sarraute clearly distinguishes between the divergent aspects of reality that she and Robbe-Grillet present. Whereas he shows the exterior of things, objects, places, and people, she concentrates on interior movements and psychological states. His universe is static, immobile, transfixed; hers is in a process of perpetual movement and transformation. They are almost opposite in temperament and vision. (p. 170)
Sarraute has always been a loner, plying her craft on the sidelines of popularity. When her writing happened to coincide with the tendencies of her contemporaries, she was willing to accept a modicum of kinship. When her former colleagues veered off in other directions, she was satisfied to continue along the track she had outlined for herself. Because she has allowed others to assume the role of spokesmen for the New Novel and has restricted herself to discussing her own work and intentions, her pioneering position in the vanguard of modern literature has often been overlooked. The breath of vitality she has infused into the concept of fiction, the strength of her conviction in the restorative powers of the novel, have yet to be adequately acknowledged, even by those who, wittingly or unwittingly, follow the directions and recommendations she was the first to call for. (pp. 170-71)
Once having appropriated to herself the tiny domain of tropisms, Sarraute has persevered in exploring it inch by inch, in all her works, novels and plays alike. By exposing these hidden, unbidden fragments of feeling that underlie human discourse and behavior, she has isolated a timeless quality common to all human beings, of whatever background, nationality, or social stratum. The critics who accuse her of depicting a "bourgeois" milieu or a middle-class mentality have failed—like many of her own characters—to transcend appearances, to discover the kernel of eternal truth concealed beneath a semblance of momentary circumstance.
From the initial observation of tropisms as they exist and as they precondition behavior in the restricted areas of the family, Nathalie Sarraute has expanded the terrain in which tropisms flourish to include every conceivable area of human relationships. But if she were merely repeating the evidence of the earlier books in a broader field, her works would be repetitious and, eventually, stagnant. It is because she has used the medium of tropisms as a lens through which to view fundamental issues of human concern that Sarraute's work has attained a panoramic dimension. Never deviating from the very particularized tropistic response, Sarraute manages to call into question problems of both individual and universal scope. From the dilemma of "knowing" another person, she progresses to the concept of "knowledge" about literature, art, and ideas; from everyday clichés of speech, she proceeds to the totalitarian possibilities inherent in the misuse of language generally; from a concern with standards of aesthetic judgment, she advances to the broader consideration of ethical values and conduct. Her earliest novels unmasked the dangers and conflicts menacing members of the same family; her latest works hint at the far more dangerous threat that collective ignorance, fearfulness, and intolerance pose to individual members of society. It is the recapitulation of certain universal themes—their unifying resonance from book to book—that welds the self-contained entities of the individual novels and plays into a cohesive oeuvre. It is the unlimited human implications of these evanescent impulses that turn the minuscule domain of tropisms into a microcosm of the world. (pp. 171-72)
Gretchen Rous Besser, in her Nathalie Sarraute, Twayne Publishers, 1979, 192 p.
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 of tropisms, who is attuned to emotional repercussions imperceptible to the "others." Often, like H.1 in Le Silence, like Pierre in Le Mensonge, like the husband and wife in Isma and H.2 in Elle est là, this character is torn between the ambivalent need to convince others of his perspicacity, gain their adherence, associate himself with the group, and the contrary need to remain a loner, reinforce his isolation, and maintain his individuality. Invariably, this person becomes the catalyst whereby buried tropisms come to light. Thanks to his nagging persistency, hidden impulses rise to the surface, arouse an assortment of unacknowledged emotions—jealousy, rage, frustration, envy, even violent impulses to torment and kill—before they subside into oblivion.
Language has always been of primary concern to Sarraute—language as a means of perverting meaning, preventing communication, congealing feelings, breeding intolerance. Language and its inadequacies are at the heart of her earlier plays. In the total picture of her theater, a progression can now be discerned. From a concentration on the power of language—the ominous ambiguity of non-communication in Le Silence, the inextricable intertwining of truth and falsehood in Le Mensonge, even the irritating effects of speech mannerisms in Isma and of certain pat formulae in C'est beau—Sarraute has arrived at a concentration on the power of thought itself. By exploring dogmatism as a form of moral coercion—not on a grandiose politico-philosophical scale, but in its tiny, unnoticed, and insidious emotional repercussions on quite ordinary human beings—she opens a door onto profoundly disturbing vistas. In her diffident, circuitous way, Nathalie Sarraute has become a moralist for our time. (p. 498)
Gretchen Rous Besser, in a review of "Théâtre," in The French Review, Vol. LIII, No. 3, February, 1980, pp. 497-98.
[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 they were a literal alienation of his thoughts, since he spoke them in German not his native Russian. From this Sarraute argues, touchingly, to the dramatist's heroic modesty in extremis, but it is rather the harrowing discrepancy between the bare form of words—as if he were setting out to conjugate a verb not easily used in the first person singular—and the foreknowledge they contain of his own approaching extinction, which gives Chekhov's historical "Ich sterbe" its rightful precedence in L'Usage de la parole. It is a sombre, humane opening to what is elsewhere a mordant and unforgiving book.
The phrases which give rise to the remaining nine scenes or episodes are French ones: "A très bientôt", "Et pourquoi pas?", "Ton père. Ta soeur", and so on, ordinary enough until Sarraute imagines for them a context which turns them from bland civilities into weapons of psychological warfare. Friends meet and converse, in a café or in the street, and are all sociability; except underneath, where the best of friends can at moments be the most savage of opponents, Sarraute resorts sardonically to metaphor to indicate what words will not capture: the shameful and ineffable animosities that constantly imperil our urbanity.
This is a party-game for grownups; to allow the imagination to play around the vacuous and paltry remarks which daily meet the ear. It is a game which Sarraute invites her readers, ironically, to play with her; for the otherwise random scenes of L'Usage de la parole are unified by the artful commentary of a narrator, asking for our trust and forbearance as each scene opens, and ultimately for our cooperation, since the scenes are meant as specimens, as object-lessons in the interpretation of human motives. Sarraute's are micro-dramas of evasiveness and anxious conformism, of our will to live by the prevailing rules and also to see our friends as consoling alter egos. Each variation on what is really the one scene records a profound, disorienting intrusion by one person on another, a violation of the superficialities we live by. The two speakers have roles, never names, because the fateful anonymity of language is both a refuge and a curse, it makes conversation at once easier and less authentic.
Sarraute has no equal at imagining the form of these secret contests.
John Sturrock, "De profundis," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4019, April 4, 1980, p. 391.
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….
Like the writer in Entre la vie et la mort, Sarraute is fascinated by words. They are, of course, the writer's stock-in-trade. But how often words are misunderstood, even when they are intended to persuade and convince. The more banal the expression, Sarraute seems to say, the further removed it is from its original import and the more susceptible it becomes to misinterpretation. And misinterpretation—the slight misalignment of two speakers, their divergent perspectives, their unexpected reactions—is the basis for half the world's ills. Sarraute never says as much, of course. She never dots her i's or crosses her t's, preferring the ubiquitous points de suspension, which leave conclusions—even the endings of sentences—up to the reader.
This reader finds Sarraute to be a tacit moralist in the lineage of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère. Her instantaneous portraits, sketched in and rubbed out in the same twinkling gesture, capture the essence of human relationships. She re-creates en passant the torment of incomprehension, the magic of love, the fear of abandoment, the anguish of betrayal, even the unthinkable act of dying. There is almost always a victim tyrannized by a victor. The oppressor and the oppressed, the strong and the weak, the bold and the timorous are joined in a linguistic struggle, where words are the ultimate weapon. (p. 625)
Once again—as in Le Silence and Le Mensonge—Sarraute notes the power of language and the perils of misunderstanding, as well as the fear and distrust of direct communication. (If a subject is disagreeable, who interrupts to say, "Ne me parlez pas de ca"? If an argument is dense, how many speak up with, "Je ne comprends pas"?) But Sarraute refuses to dictate behavior or make value judgments. It appears that she is merely describing what is, not suggesting what ought to be. In fact, her manner is so mild, her weapons so disguised, that we are barely aware of hearing a soft-voiced call to arms. (p. 626)
Gretchen Rous Besser, in a review of "L'usage de la parole," in The French Review, Vol. LIV, No. 4, March, 1981, pp. 625-26.
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 is fixed within established relationships; the word love is associated with God but also with hypocrisy and boredom; acquaintances in a chance encounter would much rather pretend not to see each other, yet they convey meaning to their void with banalities. Again, solid order and walls crack to reveal that nothing is stable. Discrepancies between facade and authenticity become evident in a constantly shifting present. Again Nathalie Sarraute has proven herself a master of French prose and a keen observer of the human mind.
A. Otten, in a review of "L'usage de la parole," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 279.
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 are.
In this poetic enterprise, Tropismes at once establishes the poetic tone, and initiates the reader into the dramas of preverbal experience. The first two novels induct the reader into the new modes, using a rather nebulous first-person narrator to question and undermine the distinctions and categorisations we are accustomed to in the novel. They introduce us to a reality whose mobility is attested by proliferation of versions, a reality whose emotive features are mixed, and constantly changing. The categorisations of character-portrayal are experienced, rather than shown, as inadequate and false. Psychological classifications are experienced as unreal: the psychiatrist's advice to N in [Portrait d'un inconnu] has neither strength nor validity against the intensity of gaze of the blurred, unfinished, anonymous portrait, nor, ultimately, against the vitality of N's apparently defeated narrative. The categorisations adduced by, and attributed to, Martereau and his wife, in their self-portraiture, and the narrator's transient efforts at stable characterisations of them, are as false as the arranged smiles and postures of an old family photograph.
In the third novel, where the narrator himself is deposed and narrated, we cannot trust a narrative that reduces Berthe to 'une vieille maniaque' to amuse a social gathering, or interest Germaine Lemaire, when we have, in the course of the novel, been that 'vieille maniaque', and know that she is like us, and that we are like everybody. All three novels disarticulate the narrator and systematically undermine narrative authority. They also take us into the inner pulsations of experience with their repetitive rhythms and dynamic patterns. The repetition indeed reasserts the primacy of experience, and the inadequacy of language: the reality of experience is communicated in the gaps between the quasi-synonyms, in the fumbling and self-correcting, in the palpable rhythms of hesitant or self-assertive voices.
The fourth novel, Les Fruits d'or, is an orchestration of many such voices. It is not a satire of Parisian intellectual life (though it has elements of that). It is an elaborate deconstruction of literary definitions and a reassertion, in the face of the competent and learned, the articulate and arrogant, of the primitive but inalienable rights of the stumbling, the inarticulate, and the timed. It vividly reaffirms the primacy of what lies before and under the words, and this reaffirmation is made with words, and of words. Elaborate rhetoric is deployed but undermined by wit, by humour, and equally elaborate contradiction. If humour and irony perturb and disrupt, they are not allowed to destroy: we are not, in the Sarrautean novel, in the mode of the 'purely comic'. Disrupted images may be disturbed and scattered, but they are not totally dismissed. On the contrary, their richness and the strands that connect them to an inner core of human feelings make them precisely a mobile, discontinuous, and poetic reflection of human reality. When the noise of the sometimes deafening voices and their clashing words—breaking over heads like truncheons, stilling resistance with the force of water-hoses—dies down, we hear, briefly but insistently, the quiet uncertain voice of one neither declaiming nor denouncing, but pursuing his own solitary search for truth, groping at words, turning them over cautiously, thinking, feeling, pondering his experience of a work he loves—impregnable, in his timidity, against the mockeries of fashion.
Entre la vie et la mort takes us to the centre of the artistic struggle to defeat words with words, as the writer, tempted by postures of sovereignty and authority, 'unwrites' the sirensongs of his temptations, and maintains his humility. The novel persuades ultimately that the authentic writer is, after all, a Holy Fool, despite his contradictions and his shortcomings. He embodies the heroism of humility, when he continues and endures, despite multiple rejections, caricatures, and mockery, strong in his faith that his stumbling pursuit of reality is after all worthwhile. (pp. 182-84)
The title of Nathalie Sarraute's most recent work is … L'Usage de la parole …, and here, abandoning the novel-structure, she has collected ten short essay/sketches each exploring as abstractly and generally as possible, the dramatic sub-structure of certain precise locutions. L'Usage de la parole seems to mark an extreme point in Nathalie Sarraute's artistic evolution. Having, in the novels, explored the possibilities of the continuous narrative, she returns to the greater freedom of construction found in the prose-poems of Tropismes. Indeed, centring her concerns on a few banal locutions, she has, here, even more space for exploration in depth than was available there. No characters (save, in a very limited sense, Tchekhov, who appears in the first text—but it is not his character that is at issue), no décors, no specific situations distract the reader from the 'play' of the words. I use 'play' here, in the widest sense, to indicate range, possibilities, purposes, effects, manner of making or losing points, and latent drama…. (p. 189)
In 'Ton père. Ta soeur', the phrase already met in Entre la vie et la mort …: 'Si tu continues, Armand, ton père va préférer ta soeur' (If you go on, Armand, your father will end up preferring your sister) reappears, stripped this time of its status as focus for the preoccupations of a central figure. It is also further stripped of the potentially distracting plot-value of the parental threat it enfolds. Our attention is here securely focused on 'Ton père, Ta soeur' and the characterisations and distances these words create, the tone of voice which they produce—'sa voix résonne comme ces voix anonymes, venant on ne sait d'où, qui dans les lieux publics diffusent les informations' … (her voice resounds like those anonymous voices which, coming from who knows where, relay information in public places).
There is no imaginary narrator in this work, save a Diderot-like authorial first-person, and the 'play' of pronouns is ever more intensely questioned…. If, in Les Fruits d'or, to borrow Ann Jefferson's phrase …, 'Address resolves the impossible problems of definition' for the one reader who silently apostrophises the work itself, in L'Usage de la parole, the work itself addresses us the readers from the very first page.
The first appearance of the first-person pronoun is artfully prepared—first it is the German 'Ich', in the phrase 'Ich sterbe', then it is a purely linguistic 'I' in the phrase which translates it: 'Ich sterbe. Qu'est-ce que c'est? Ce sont des mots allemands, Ils signifient je meurs' (Ich sterbe. What's that? They are German words. They mean I am dying). The 'I' so far has no referent, and therefore provokes the question: 'Mais d'où, mais pourquoi tout à coup?' (But from where, and why, all of a sudden?) The 'person' that now clearly emerges in the narrative is the second-person, the 'you' of the reader directly addressed: 'Vous allez voir, prenez patience' (You will see, have patience). The next significant pronoun that arises is again first-person, but this time it is plural—text and reader joined in an intimate 'nous': 'ne nous hâtons pas, allons au plus près d'abord' … (don't let's hurry, let's get as close as we can first). This is a 'nous' that recalls the we of the writer and judge, joined in creation at the end of Entre la vie et la mort, a union in which the reader is also enclosed. The introductory page of 'Ich sterbe'—a profoundly moving meditation that follows the spoken word to the ultimate point, the point of expiration and death—sets the tone for the texts that follow. They unite writer and reader in a common quest for the reality beneath the words—the shock-waves emanating from the word 'esthétique' (aesthetic), incautiously placed in a banal conversation, the volcanic eruption produced by 'Eh bien quoi, c'est un dingue' (Oh well, after all, he's an oaf), the death-ray of 'Ne me parlez pas de ça' (Don't speak to me about that), the sudden sting of 'Mon petit' (My boy, or Sonny) and the almost imperceptible aeration of the most banal words that communicates the shimmer of feeling far better than 'Le mot Amour' (the word Love), and its derivatives. The aggressive questioning provoked by the failure to find adequate words: 'Comment appelez-vous ça?—je ne vois pas, je ne trouve aucun mot qui le désigne.—Aucun mot? Mais vous savez bien que rien ici-bas ne peut prétendre à l'existence tant que ça n'a pas reçu de nom …'… (What do you call that?—I can't see, I can't find any word that applies to it.—No word? But you know perfectly well that nothing on this earth can claim existence until it has been given a name …)—finds a convincing answer in these successfully exploring texts.
Nathalie Sarraute is not explicitly concerned to moralise. Yet there is clear moral concern and effect in all [her] works. She teaches implicitly that the humble pursuit of truth is always worthwhile, whatever we are doing, creating, or saying; that authority is no substitute for argument; and words, no matter how loaded, no substitute for thought. She persuades that superiorities are transitory, for 'nous sommes bien tous un peu comme ça' (we are all really a bit like that), and have more in common than we are usually prepared to recognise, whatever our class, sex, race, creed, or colour. All [her] works testify to the conviction that reality is always on the underside of language, and humility the natural and only mode of pursuing truth.
The war of the words is never decisively won, but is always worth waging. The works of Nathalie Sarraute reassert the reality that engenders words, but that words, once fixed, deny. It is a reality which necessitates the breaking of the moulds, and the creation of new forms. Such an endeavour generates not rhetoric but poetry, for it is a matter of articulating the virtualities of what is neither spoken nor even formulated, a matter of giving voice to human silence. (pp. 190-92)
Valerie Minogue, in her Nathalie Sarraute and the War of the Words: A Study of Five Novels, Edinburgh University Press, 1981, 230 p.
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 and patiently try to worm their way around the verbal-mental block it created in the child. Others open in an intermediate realm of the child's floating perceptions and suddenly come aground on the shoal of unfeeling words thoughtlessly uttered by adults. Sometimes these scenes carry a wistfully comic flavor, or at least a glimpse of precocious gallows humor. Mme. Sarraute's consistent and sensitive attitude toward language lends a strong unity to her work and approaches that of a troubled poet like Rilke or Mallarmé—speech as both essential and unbearable.
The comic in these unassuming memories almost disappears behind the gradual crescendo of sorrow and self-protection. Nathalie Sarraute's earliest memories of herself as Natasha Tcherniak concerned her awkward, often painful shuttlings between the domiciles of her Russian parents, divorced soon after her birth and both remarried….
From an early age Natasha has been aware of the inappropriate singularity of what she calls "my ideas"—tremors that grow from a low muttering in her mind into uncontrollable eruptions of word or deed…. An infantile form of the demonic seems to drive her, like a character out of Dostoyevsky. But Natasha tries hard to master her demon and sometimes believes she has succeeded. "Childhood" can be read as the story of the formation of a will, though I cannot recall the word being mentioned.
Next to the sorrows of separation and the vagaries of a young will, the third and late-arriving element in these memories is Natasha's shift from racial innocence as a good little French child like all others in school to an awareness of her Slavic Jewish ancestry. It comes as a quiet revelation, not as an immediate social problem, after she goes to mass with her governess and then listens to her free-thinking father….
The low-keyed form of "Childhood" affords it the double quality of directness and reflectiveness. Mme. Sarraute accepts without distress the fragmentary nature of her memories. She has probably made some adjustments; any probe disturbs the circumstances being probed. Events follow a loosely chronological order with enough cross-references to keep us alert. These short sections move at an almost respiratory pace that may be in part attributable to the steady weaving of the verb tenses between present and past. That oscillation springs directly from another feature of the form.
By an evidently careful decision, Mme. Sarraute has created for herself and out of herself in "Childhood" an interlocutor, an alter ego who addresses her as tu, questions her motives and her credibility, supplies alternative explanations and goads her to undertake the project. The opening pages present a playful dialogue between one voice for Natasha-Nathalie, child protagonist grafted onto adult narrator, and another voice for the interlocutor-author who doubts and coaxes and also tends to push her literary effects too hard….
It sounds like a gentle mocking of her own novels. We are in good hands, a long way from the spectacular intellectual surfing of Sartre's autobiography, "Words," traversing large expanses of time organized by le passé simple, and also a long way from the poised, self-deprecation of "Barthes on Barthes," another contemporary French autobiography.
I have not yet put my finger on the particular quality I find in "Childhood." In Antonioni's film "Blow-Up" the photographer enlarges his cryptic pictures in order to discover clues in the shrubbery. But blown up beyond a critical point of graininess, the photographs no longer yield any visual content that can be assembled and recognized as reality. This paradox of magnification relates to the writer's dilemma. The scale on which "Childhood" is written brings the reader miraculously close to the texture of life the way a child, precariously balanced between two parents, two countries, might experience it. But when you approach so close, language no longer serves adequately to record the observations; it seems to obliterate the very thing it is meant to designate. Still tiny, sitting on a park bench between her father and an alluring young woman of uncertain status, Natasha Tcherniak has just heard a tale from Hans Christian Andersen. Nathalie Sarraute, remembering the moment and operating inside the same "I" as the child Natasha, cannot accept the terms "happiness" or "ecstasy" to describe Natasha's feelings, not even the simple word "joy." Such words "cannot gather up what fills me, brims over in me, disperses, dissolves, melts into the pink bricks, the blossom-covered espaliers, the lawn, the pink and white petals, the air vibrating with barely perceptible tremors, with waves … waves of life, quite simply of life, what other word?… I am inside them with nothing else, nothing that does not belong to them, nothing that belongs to me."
The passage, like all of "Childhood," records a prolonged probing toward language whose full realization would bring everything to a standstill. Some say the French novel will never recover its greatness without finding great subjects. Nathalie Sarraute says in her quiet voice that a form of greatness lurks in remote twinges, in interior moments where we rarely look for it. (p. 31)
Roger Shattuck, "Life Before Language," in The New York Times Book Review, April 1, 1984, pp. 1, 31.
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 strictly subjective time. To be sure, each worked differently. Robbe-Grillet is all eyes, addicted to a seen continuous present. Sarraute is a listener, and her aim is not the voyeur's ecstasy but satire. She has kept her water glass pressed, always, against the paper-thin wall of life's small talk. ("Small talk": I know of no French expression equivalent to this delicious phrase, but it might have been invented for Nathalie Sarraute.) Listening to small talk, she strains to catch the false notes of inauthenticity. She is forever listening for the lie, the revelatory catch and quaver of falsehood. That giveaway tremor is her truth.
So it is in Childhood. Once again, Sarraute is gathering evidence…. Her childhood was unhappy, and the little girl had every reason to learn to listen for the lie…. The little cosmopolite—a mixture of French, Russian, and Jewish heritage—was torn between an increasingly indifferent mother in Russia and a cold but constant father in Paris…. Retrieving the small talk of these large betrayals, Sarraute repeatedly moved me with her lawyer-like precision, finding the locus of a little girl's double-binds….
No accident that the grown-up Sarraute came to call one of her books The Age of Suspicion. Her art of mistrust had been earned. Childhood is composed in two voices. The first is that of a sensuous, energetic, wistful, remembering, slightly (but only slightly) sentimental self. This is what remains of the child's voice. The other—commenting—voice is a none-too-generous, punitive, intelligent, superegotistical, irritable "adult" counter-voice. It seems reluctant to permit Sarraute to write at all.
Though informed by truth and an uncompromising intelligence, Childhood does not seem to me destined for a place among the best memoirs of childhood in modern literature…. It is too thin, too reticent, and its anger is too unresolved. Too much that is too important is not said. Show, don't tell: Here the tiresome, exhausted modernist bromide reaches a kind of reductio. Sarraute's method, based in reticence, resists the idea, I know. But I cannot help believing that Sarraute should be telling more, much, much more, about her betrayals. We are shown the manipulations of 70-some years ago. But what the manipulated child has to tell the adult, and vice versa, is the whole interest of the memoir as a form. Sarraute understands this, she makes it central to her book. Unfortunately the adult intelligence here is neither compassionate nor supple. It is irritable, reprimanding, snobbish. "The past is not dead," Faulkner wrote. "It is not even past." Every memoirist tests the power of this absorbing half-truth. Listening for her childhood's lies, the artist of suspicion has come up with an old; and very familiar one—that parental love can be trusted. I knew it, she seems to say, I always knew it. But then she lifts the angry stepmotherly forefinger of her mistrust, and will not let it speak. (p. 14)
Stephen Koch, "The Early Years of Nathalie Sarraute," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 20, 1984, pp. 1, 14.
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….
After 50 years of developing the means to catch, clarify, and reproduce the inner movements of others, Sarraute has used her enormous resources to pin down the precise movements in her inner and outer life as a child that impelled her to write, and to write in her particular way. (p. 41)
Sarraute could not have written her memoir as a flat-out narrative of memory, however subtle or complex, without committing a "minor crime" against her perception of life as we know it from her other works, against the style she has evolved, against everyone's recognition that your own childhood is inevitably mythologized, revised, ahistorical. She solves this by telling her story to a questioning Other, who opens the book with the words, "Then you really are going to do that? 'Evoke your childhood memories' … how these words embarrass you," and meanly adds, "it could be that your forces are declining." (p. 42)
The partner in Childhood sometimes speaks like a friend, sometimes like an analyst (or a well-analyzed friend), a conscientious editor, or, purely, the promptings of an honest superego.
The second voice can also become a mechanical device, tsk-tsk-tsking disingenuously away: "You haven't been able to resist introducing something a little prefabricated … it's so tempting, you've inserted a pretty little piece …" The narrator defends herself, or, when nagged, admits that because she actually had a wicked stepmother, she's afraid of veering into fiction. Such lessons in conscience and technique are a little tricky and unnecessary, condescending to the reader.
On the other hand, the questioner's presence keeps us from sinking so deeply into Nathalie—wonderful child—or into Sarraute's gorgeous imagism that we forget the struggle, not just of writing the book but of thinking through any childhood. We are forced to suspend belief; the voice creates, parallel to the autobiographical narrative, an essay on the effort of memory we are all constantly making. By starting with this secondary voice, Sarraute mildly sabotages herself, only ultimately to strengthen the sense of truth, in the same way that her lack of vengefulness or whining serves to strengthen the shocking sadness of so much that happens. Most important, the technique prevents Sarraute from recreating in the relationship between writer and reader the kind of lies, bad faith, and miscommunication she is describing between parents and child—though this paradoxically creates such an extreme consciousness of style that manipulation becomes a subject of a different sort.
The use of the second speaker, the way "characters" shift and mutate, the need for connection also place this book in a formal context that recreates the flow and tone typical of most of her work, with its constant internal revisions and extenuations, its ceaseless editing of consciousness. Recreates quite directly indeed: it's easy to find, and then be overwhelmed by, the links between what is presented in this factual and "accessible" work, and everything else, however fictive and difficult, Sarraute has written.
Childhood is almost shockingly connected, as if after years of gazing at a tree, you saw its roots, its seed, as if you were suddenly granted X-ray eyes. Some of these connections are banal, almost amusing: Nathalie began without suspicion of her parents; she learned better; Sarraute's collected literary essays are The Age of Suspicion. Nathalie had "her ideas"; It Is There is a play entirely about the intellectual and emotional havoc caused among some male intellectuals by a woman with "ideas." (pp. 42-3)
Large chunks of Sarraute's later subject matter can thus be traced to the most quotidian moments of her recollection, and so, on top of its other achievements, Childhood has gracefully, almost surreptitiously, made a hundred dissertations redundant….
Yet this book is extremely different from Sarraute's others and not because—precisely not because—it is about herself. Indeed, writing about her self, and her small, long-gone childhood world, has expanded her horizons. In Childhood, the malice and claustrophobia of her novels disappear. Sarraute has seized on a reality which can withstand her scrutiny of language and character.
Childhood is not more realistic because it is, as its publishers keep urging, "accessible" in the sense of easy to read. It is no less "difficult" than Tropisms or The Use of Speech or, granted you know the milieu, The Golden Fruits. While Childhood's sharply imagistic scenes and rather clear divisions between one speaker and the other make it, page by page, far from the "existential puzzle" of "Fools Say", and the kind of people who inhabit Childhood make it much less of a chore to read than The Planetarium, it lacks those works' saving, acid humor. The broadening of her realism comes simply from the way a subject of widest meaning—the relationship of lies and power, rooted in a child's developing relationship to words and authority—is presented through a technique which can replicate this development as no ostensibly "naturalistic" style could….
Sarraute in The Age of Suspicion described with contempt those modern writers who make their characters commit "unwonted, monstrous acts" which the reader, who has committed no such acts, "quietly thrusts aside … without the heavy shadow that submerges his own dark places having lifted for a second." Her scrupulous book lifts that shadow, and while what's bared is of all things a bourgeois family, that family's deceptions, affections, and most fleeting transitions have correspondences for most of us, and are the starting point as well as the mirror of our society as well as hers. (p. 43)
Erika Munk, "A Suspension of Belief: Nathalie Sarraute's Unsentimental Education," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX, No. 31, July 31, 1984, pp. 41-3.