Critical Context

The Planetarium is Nathalie Sarraute’s most popular novel and her most “readable” in terms of traditional plot and structure. The work exemplifies her theory of “tropisms” while still maintaining a controlled sense of action or at least of “preaction.” As early as 1939, Sarraute had established her literary method with her first book, Tropismes (1938; Tropisms, 1963). Hardly a novel, Tropisms was a series of sketches or vignettes, in which characters revealed themselves in a series of images (tropisms, as she called them) which evoked sensations, reflexes, “subconversations” just below, behind, or before the spoken word.

Like Marcel Proust, her near-contemporary, she seeks to examine the emotional content of experience which lies just beneath the conscious perception and which determines the course of physical action without being part of it. Sarraute is also interested in what James Joyce called an “epiphany,” a showing forth, that moment of instantaneous illumination, of acute emotional awareness, that occurs to the sensitive human being. Unlike the work of Joyce or Proust, however, Sarraute’s is peculiarly synthetic. A sense of nature—flowers, mud, rain, the color of the sky—is missing in her books, and locale is only vaguely comprehended. The characters operate in the private worlds of their own minds.