(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Planetarium has often been called Sarraute’s masterpiece and has certainly been her most popular work. The novel is the most approachable of her works for several reasons. There is more evidence of a plot than in her other works, and the progression of the action is linear. There are also recognizable characters who can be identified not only by name but also by personality and relationships. Although there are several narrators, the shift in narration occurs at the beginning of each chapter, making the thoughts of the characters easier to apprehend.

The novel is structured around Alain Gumier’s attempt to gain possession of his aunt’s apartment and to ingratiate himself with the writer Germain Lemaire. This may seem to be very unpromising material for a novel, but Sarraute succeeds in extracting a range of emotional possibilities from the banal concerns of daily living. The disproportion between the insignificant events and the enormity of the tropisms that emerge from them is apparent from the opening chapter. In the opening pages, Alain’s Aunt Berthe excitedly anticipates the installation of an oak door only to become distressed by the cheap nickel-plated knob and by the nonchalance of the workmen. Typical of the primitive emotions characteristic of tropism, the trivial event assumes cataclysmic proportion, and the workmen become an advancing army of conquerors. Material objects, like the oak door or the leather chairs that...

(The entire section is 519 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The plot of The Planetarium is demarcated not by physical events but by the perceptions of the characters. The action is thus almost exclusively in their minds and feelings and is initiated by a line of dialogue, another character’s gesture, or a detail of place or time which impinges on the characters’ observations. Because Nathalie Sarraute abjures plot in the traditional sense, the “story” is only obliquely realized and is almost absurdly trivial. The action opens with Aunt Berthe’s obsessive concern with decorating her apartment. She fusses over curtains and color schemes, even door handles, as if they were at the center of her existence, driving the workmen from her apartment with her fastidiousness, which verges on madness.

Her apartment is the overriding concern of her nephew, Alain, as well. Newly married, something of a failure, and anxious to create a successful image for himself, Alain covets his aunt’s spacious, lavishly appointed rooms and tries to get her to leave them. Alain expects his father to cajole Aunt Berthe at first, then goes to her himself, relying on his aunt’s love for him and his own ability to wheedle. In the beginning, Aunt Berthe refuses to give up her apartment, knowing very well the spoiled, acquisitive nature of her nephew and his spaniel-hearted wife. Defiantly, Alain threatens to sue his aunt and to apply pressure on her landlord. In the end, Aunt Berthe surrenders, content to leave Alain to his...

(The entire section is 415 words.)