Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Sarraute’s early works, Tropisms, Portrait of a Man Unknown, and Martereau (1953; English translation, 1959), received almost no critical attention until the late 1950’s. By that time, the literary movement called the New Novel had awakened the French reading public to the possibilities of experimental fiction. The republication of Portrait of a Man Unknown in 1956 coincided with that of a collection of critical essays called L’Ere du soupcon (1956; The Age of Suspicion, 1963), which explored the evolution of the novel form.

Along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute came to be considered a leader and a theorist of the New Novel movement. This movement challenged traditional concepts of plot and characters in a novel, seeing them as outmoded and in need of renewal.

Portrait of a Man Unknown illustrates the principles expressed in The Age of Suspicion and forms a transition between Tropisms and Martereau. Like Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau has a first-person narrator who perceives the tropisms. After Martereau, Sarraute moved beyond the first-person narrator to fragment the central consciousness, dispersing it among all the “characters.”

Portrait of a Man Unknown contains the seeds of all Sarraute’s subsequent novels. In its preoccupation with the relationship between the artist and reality, it squarely poses the dilemma which she examines in her later works. As one of the first New Novels, its experimentation with novelistic techniques was a useful example for younger writers who developed the “New Novel” into the “new New Novel.” Finally, its critique of the banality of conversation and its examination of other issues surrounding the use of language contributed to the structuralist and deconstruction movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.