In photographs, Nathalie Sarraute stares out at us with the impassiveness of sculpture. Etched with elegantly weathered lines, her face surrounds a gaze that is frank and, one suspects, unsparing; her assured bearing suggests an impeccable if somewhat mannish grande dame. In her work, likewise, she projected an air of imperiousness, of godlike detachment. In her first book, Tropisms (1939), she gave birth to a genre wholly her ownóan amalgam of fictional sketch, prose poem, essay, and deadpan transcription of everyday speech. The daring on display in everything she wrote, her cerebral rigor as both novelist and playwright, and the crystalline austerity of her prose style collectively imparted the forbidding aura of a remote, trenchant intelligence. Sarraute's reticence toward her own biography bolstered this impression. Perhaps expecting to be graced with the gnomic utterances of an oracle, first-time visitors to her apartment near the place de l'Etoile could be caught off guard by her lively charm. Sarraute's regal manner made it commonplace, in press features and on dust jackets, for her to be cast as the doyenne of the French avant-garde. But throughout her novels one also finds oblique traces of a scarred child within: Sarraute's obsessive examination of emotion, alert to the rawest of sensitivities, reveals intensities comparable to the agony of one's earliest psychic wounds. She regarded the true artist as both conquering explorer and alienated misfit. Her resounding credo, delivered in a lecture praising Virginia Woolfó"Every work of literature, like every work of art, consists in revealing an unknown reality"ófinds variant and more complex expression toward the end of her essay "What Birds See": "It can also happen . . . that isolated, maladjusted, lonely individuals, morbidly attached to their childhood, withdrawn into themselves and cultivating a more or less conscious taste for a certain form of defeat, by giving in to an apparently useless obsession, succeed in digging up and laying bare a fragment of reality that is still unknown." The exemplary writer is poised midway between triumph and defeat, agency and passivity, the formative attachments of the past and the unearthing of a new understanding.
Sarraute's sense of vocation began in her youth, with the charmed intimations of potency offered by the act of writing. Even as she worked on her schoolgirl compositions she felt surges of power and plentitude. In the late memoir Childhood (1983), she recalled how her eleven-year-old self, Nathalie Tcherniak, enticed by the "promise of treasures" after being told to write on the subject of "My First Sorrow," was flooded with "a sensation that I couldn't name," which carried within it the hope of "dignity, perhaps," as well as a vast prospect of dominion and freedom. Sarraute lingers over the episode in Childhood, as well she might, because the unnamed, overwhelming sensation announced the birth of her fictional imagination. Altering the rules, the young student fabricated a sorrow and invented a morbid tale in which "her" cherished dog was mauled by a train. There was no need to resort to fiction; Sarraute's early life, as she shuttled between parental homes in Russia and Paris, was pervaded with sorrows. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, a trauma compounded by her father's marriage to a woman who regarded her stepdaughter with a mixture of indifference and enmity, and by young Nathalie's fear, felt as a certainty, that her mother had forgotten her. But when asked to write "My First Sorrow," she decided to invent the story about the dog because it would seem to her teacher and schoolmates "the very model of a real first sorrow of a real child," a tale epitomizing "childish purity." Already a master mimic, Sarraute performed what she shrewdly perceived to be desired of her as a representative of an abstract categoryóa "real" child, whose authenticity was measured by how closely her false confession conformed to expectations. In the novels she wrote decades later, characters make less-successful attempts to gauge what's anticipated of them, anxiously attuned to the perceptions of others, their fears denied confirmation, growing ever more lethal to themselves in a murky atmosphere of misgiving and distrust.
Although Sarraute often represented the self as a tumult of conflicting voices (an explicit conceit of her novel You Don't Love Yourself), she also stressed her consistency as a writer, and her first excursions into fiction adumbrated her mature preoccupations. Just as young Nathalie Tcherniak subverted conventional modes of expression, Nathalie Sarraute waged war against moribund forms by replicating the banalities of ordinary speech, pointing up how clichés are "what people force themselves to think and feel in order to escape from the vertigo of reality." Her account in Childhood of composing her juvenilia gives a sense of the texture of writing as she experienced it, the voluptuous absorption she is attempting to isolate and name, as well as the "maniacal attention" she said she required of herself. And what she recalled as the pupil's search for "that clarity, that smooth roundness" of style may be regarded as the first glimmer of the almost classical tautness of all her works to come.
Secreted within Sarraute's youthful confidence as a writer was a longing for a state "beyond comparison," as she recollected in an interview; a striving toward a nearly beatific ecstasy of purity and autonomy. Writing would always offer the promise of transfiguration, the assumption of an alien form of selfhood, rich and strange. It was precisely this embrace of transformative possibilities that Simone de Beauvoir, discussing Sarraute and the nouveau roman in The Force of Circumstance, castigated as decadent aestheticism. After citing a remark made by Sarraute at a conference in the Soviet Unionó"When I sit down at my desk, I leave politics, current events, the world, outside the door; I become a different person"óde Beauvoir lets rip: "How is it possible not to put the whole of oneself into the act that for a writer is the most important one of allówriting? This deliberate maiming of oneself and of one's work, this escape into fantasies about the absolute, are evidence of a defeatism justified by the depths to which our country has sunk. France, once the subject, is now no more than the object of history; her novelists reflect this degradation." As expressed here, this attitude makes one fairly cringe. That Sarraute had precariously survived the humiliations of Vichyóshe refused to wear the yellow star required of Jews, faked a divorce to protect her husband, and posed as the governess of her own children, under a crafty assumed name keyed to her initials (Nicole Sauvage)ómakes especially jarring de Beauvoir's alignment of France's supposed postwar "degradation" with the experiments of its writers.
Years earlier, long before Sarraute was embroiled in debates about the responsibility of public intellectuals or the future of the novel, she had drifted into a kind of writer's hibernation, persuading herself that the fluency with words she had felt to be so scintillating had vanished with the passing of youth. She pledged herself to a discipline for which she had little appetite, the law, and passed the Paris bar in 1925. Lawyering bored Sarraute, but reading absorbed her robust intellectual energies, especially as she discovered the bolder efforts of contemporary literature; she shared this passion for literature with the man she married in 1925, Raymond Sarraute, whom she referred to as her "first and unique reader." Her long dormancy can be described as a glacial process of individuation as an artist. Reading Mann's Tonio Kröger as a student in Berlin, Sarraute felt as if she'd written the words herself. Such absolute identification tends to squeeze out the necessary distance and resistant sense of identity required of a budding writer, and indeed Sarraute did not write her first "tropism" until 1932. She later claimed her breakthrough had been caused by "the impact of emotion, of a very vivid impression," rather than by the dictates of experimentalism for its own sake. It is telling that Sarraute felt compelled to explain herself on these grounds. Though she's characteristically vague about the specifics, there's no reason to doubt that she began writing Tropisms under the sway of genuine feeling. But the assurance and nearly Olympian sangfroid of the prose reveal such emotion submitted to a meticulous process of metamorphosis. Lytton Strachey remarked that Stendhal united "the emotionalism of a schoolgirl with the cold penetration of a judge on the bench"; Sarraute displays a similar fusion of turbulent sentiment and dispassionate precision.
And just as Stendhal borrowed the scientific term crystallization to parse the mysteries of love, Sarraute appropriated the term tropism from biology to give a name to those pulses of feeling that course, swell, and churn within her characters, even during their most trivial interactions with others. Indeed, especially during such encounters, Sarraute fixes her gaze repeatedly, one might say obsessively, on scenes of quotidian drabness, on nonevents unfolding against bleak, shabby backgrounds. In Tropisms it's often unclear exactly where we are. Only occasionally does the author specify that we're in Paris; one of the book's twenty-four brief chapters takes place on the outskirts of London, and most occur in a melancholy region drained of vitality, frequently an urban milieu of enervated pedestrians, tawdry shop-windows, dank corridors in anonymous apartment buildings. Sarraute here sketches out yet another enclave in that sprawling rundown metropolis of the modernist imagination, complementing the bedraggled settings of Eliot's Preludes and Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight.
The near-skeletal figures populating Tropisms contribute as well to the disorientation that accompanies a first reading. The most rudimentary guideposts are absent. Apart from a few glancing references to marginal characters, no one is designated by a proper name or even a bare initial. Placed beside Sarraute's characters, even what she called the "slender prop" of Kafka's Joseph K. seems bulked-out and hefty. A protagonist's very name, she wrote in her seminal essay "The Age of Suspicion," has become a "source of embarrassment" to the modern writer, who "only reluctantly" furnishes characters with "attributes that could make him too easily distinguishable: his physical aspect, gestures, actions, sensations, everyday emotions, studied and understood for so long, which contribute to giving him, at the cost of so little effort, an appearance of life, and present such a convenient hold for the reader." Using her anonymous types, Sarraute delves into the subterranean zones of personality, probing its shadowy recesses and tracking those "movements which are inherent in everybody and can take place in anybody." Such energized tropisms lurk "behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state."
Sarraute's formal stringency was prompted by modernism's restless chasing after the new. Although not a member of any organized movementóthe nouveau roman group with which she was associated was a flowering of writers with affinities of purpose but rather different themes and predilectionsóshe never wavered in her commitment to the avant-garde as a stance dedicated to being, as Rimbaud had insisted, absolutely modern. By the middle of the twentieth century, the precincts of fiction were overpopulated with characters securely ensconced in the collective imaginationóRastignac, Sorel, Pip, Bovary, Isabel Archer, Nana, Raskolnikov; the list goes on and onóto say nothing of the parade of types made familiar through second- and third-rate novels. What need was there, Sarraute reasoned, to contribute redundantly to the tradition, to add yet another fully formed protagonist, yet more nail-biting episodes?
Sarraute was one of the last in a line of artists who sought through radical innovation to renew entire aesthetic traditions, shattering the encrustations of threadbare ideas, official commonplaces, conventional and therefore lifeless forms of perception. In her complicated relation to the past she spanned a gaping contradictionóor, one might say, she forged her own resolution of a dialectic that had troubled writers since the advent of Romanticism. Abandoning the most fundamental building blocks of storytelling and reconfiguring fiction, so to speak, at the molecular level, Sarraute went further even than James and Proust in attempting to name the ineffable. Her works are as distinct from their predecessors as a head X-ray is from an ornately framed painted portrait. And yet, for all her originality, it was evident from Tropisms on that she'd absorbed more than a century's worth of fiction, and not just those moderns she singled out as influences: Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Ivy Compton-Burnett. Tropisms begins to yield familiar readerly pleasures once you get your bearings. In a few terse phrases, Sarraute can create a scene in as realistic a mode as Balzac: "The place had a cold, dingy glitter," runs a description of a café that might be found anywhere in France; "the waiters ran about too fast in a rough, indifferent manner, the mirrors gave back harsh reflections of tired faces and blinking eyes." Also apparent is the keen understanding of the social novelist, regarding her characters with a full spectrum of attitudesósometimes compassionate, often satirical. Each of the book's compressed chapters offers a piercing sociological snapshot, whether of the well-bred but impoverished ladies who have turned bargain hunting for their proper tweeds into an anxious, jittery quest, or the unctuous lecturer at the Collége de France who claims to have demystified modern literature by means of psychiatric theories, or the shrewish mother whose entire personality can be summed up in her axiom that "there was no more obvious sign of inferiority, of weakness, than to let one's breakfast grow cold." Some of the sketches are so generalized as to more closely resemble essays than fiction, as when whole subcultures are encapsulated in a few expert brushstrokes: "They had come to live in the quiet little streets behind the Panthéon, near the Rue Gay-Lussac or the Rue Saint-Jacques, in apartments giving on to dark courtyards. . . . They were offered an existence that was at once despoiled and protected, an existence like a waiting room in a deserted suburban railway station. . . . And they were contented, they liked it here, they felt almost at home, they were on good terms with Mme. la Concierge." But ultimately Sarraute's insights into collective life are offered as backdrop to the playing out of her characters' interior dramas. She zeroes in on the ingrown reflexes, the nervous tics of social conditioning; she links adult neuroses to childhood episodes with exactitude; she examines how internalized strictures and the dictates of group cohesion lead to patterns of behavior, as mild or volatile as those of the weather. These explorations, begun in Tropisms and remaining at the core of her fiction and plays written over the next six decades, further the tradition of the nineteenth-century psychological novel, especially as it flourished in Russia. Dostoevsky in particular had opened up, as Sarraute remarked in one of the essays from The Age of Suspicion, "immense territories" for literature.
On the basis of her slender first book, it would not have been surprising if Sarraute, like Borges, had made brevity an integral part of her aesthetic. The shaping pressures of Tropisms were those of compression and abbreviation, bringing forth visions of terrible finality, as if there could be nothing more to say about the lives under the microscope. The challenge was to adapt the scrupulous terms of Tropisms to the larger form of the novel. The most obvious solution, the creation of proliferating incidents and encountersóthe invention, that is, of a plotówas to be resisted as fully as was possible without lapsing into incoherence. Not that Sarraute's novels lack plots entirely. She made certain unavoidable concessions; some characters even have names. But in the two novels written during the war and just afterward, Portrait of a Man Unknown and Martereau, Sarraute set down the template she was to follow for the rest of her career, with an increasing tendency toward abstraction. She traced storylines so perfunctory as to mock the demand that novelists create interesting events in a labyrinth of fictional twists and turns. As in Tropisms, the focus instead was on the localized jets of sensation that emerge as the self undergoes uneasy confrontations with others, most often in the fraught realm of the family. Such exchanges recur often enough to constitute a stifling climate of uncertainty and imminent threat. The figures in her novels are porous, their identities predicated not on solid attributes consistently displayed but on their susceptibility to certain tendencies of perception and feeling. The micronarratives of the tropisms that flare within them are rendered with Sarraute's trademark detachment, the regard with which one might monitor the trajectory of a distant comet. Her cool attentiveness is the means by which her books, despite their scant plots, fill out the expansive canvas of novelistic form.
Such attentiveness also anchors the novels' psychological hyperrealism, their enlarged and detailed map of interiority. Many of Sarraute's characters are afflicted by heightened sensitivity, such as the neurasthenic narrator of Portrait of a Man Unknown, a patient under psychiatric care. These figures can be labeled readily enough as "paranoiac," say, or, in the jargon of our era, "bipolar"; but terms like these are ultimately beside the point. We might just as well call the protagonist of A la recherche du temps perdu "jealous," plain and simple. What's more, the roiled, unruly mindscape Sarraute repeatedly describes seems common to everyone. Who has not felt waves of barbed feeling, akin to the tropistic movements Sarraute describes, during an awkward or highly charged encounter? Her defamiliarizing techniques of perspective and characterization do not preclude recognition of familiar if ultimately mysterious modes of consciousnessómuch as Gertrude Stein's often abstruse surfaces have their origin in an attitude of fascinated alertness to the minutiae of mental life. Sarraute's claims that she was most intent on exploring the substrate of selfhood, the residue of a primordial state preceding language and even sexual differentiationó"On the inside, where I am, the sexes don't exist," she declaredócut to the heart of her concerns. With her characters' particulars left intentionally vague, Sarraute's novels aren't quite about anybody, because they're really about everybody.
This vagueness, however, never extends to the writing, which is tightly controlled and, in its carefully proportioned balance of dialogue, description, and metaphor, comparable to a feat of engineering. Sarraute is guided as much by the restrictions she sets for herself as by what she actually writes. Though often agitated, fearful, disturbed, in its choice of words her dialogue is unremarkable; she adheres so closely to ordinary speech that her characters' conversations seem highly stylized, the most mundane utterances imbued with a suggestion of unreality. External description is deliberately skeletal. As if to compensate for her self-imposed limits, her use of metaphor is extravagant, though here too she distinguishes herself by refusing some of the usual technical options. Unlike most novelists, she rarely employs metaphors as local flourishes to accentuate specific details. Instead she establishes analogies for the situations she's exploring, favoring tropes that are outrageous, wild, drawn from a mélange of sources: fairy tales, medieval romance, accounts of warfare, animal combat, the deterministic processes of biology and physics. Frames of cultural reference that have been otherwise painstakingly submerged resurface with a vengeance. Startling analogies are always close at hand, as Sarraute places them in her narratives with the care of a soldier planting mines. "He's an insect pinned to a cork plaque," she writes, describing the seemingly mundane episode of a man introducing a woman he admires to his father in The Planetarium; "he's a corpse laid out on the dissecting table and his father, adjusting his glasses, is leaning over him." Sarraute creates an illusion of simultaneity, of forward momentum along parallel tracksóone grounded in the commonplace, the other advancing through fabulous realms of violence and fantasy. Reading a Sarraute novel is like watching a news broadcast in which the anchorman speaks trivialities and bromides while the crawl below sends word of sieges and conflagrations in a slowly unwinding procession.
A passage from Martereau shows the effect of this sort of technique. The action can be summarized in a few words: The anonymous narrator and his aunt and uncle visit a suburban house the uncle is considering as a purchase. In tandem with the account of the event and long stretches of talk runs a thread of tropes. A safety valve opens and releases gusts of air; the nephew feels dizzy, a sensation akin to "what drug addicts must feel when they are about to take their drug"; nephew and uncle are said to have signed a truce; the uncle assumes shape metaphorically as a creature with "tentacles . . . straining ready to seize their prey"; his coloring is that of a piece of fabric dipped in sulfur; nephew and uncle are said to be "translucent as ghosts"; a lull of "exquisite mellowness" calls forth the observation that "a sucking babe who feels his mother's breast between his famished lips experiences no greater appeasement"; the image of a "cozy nest" soon gives way to the prospect of a "mutilation" resembling "that of a tree whose branches are cut in spring, when the sap is rising." As the episode continues, there are hallucinatory images of a predatory tree, a sprung trap, lifeboats fleeing a doomed ship, their car pictured as an upholstered casket. This passage is typical. The sequence of metaphors and figurative evocations strung through Sarraute's narratives accumulate as an undercurrent of intensity, a sort of third rail of extreme states, primal ruptures, and satisfactions given free play in the realm of analogy.
Sarraute conceived of writing as a hermetic practice, in the world but not of it. It's a surprising if trivial irony that she preferred to work in bustling cafés. Along with her forays into the cryptic swirl of inner life, Sarraute's other great subject was the strained relations of literature and art with the social nexus. When exploring such concerns in her novels, the tone shifts are more likely to be infused with comic verve, feints of wit. In The Planetarium, the pompous writer Germaine Lemaire and her sycophantic circle are targets of satire. The Golden Fruits charts the rise and fall of a novel, also called The Golden Fruits, as it moves from being the prized find of an elitist coterie to public sensation to passé object of disparagement, before coming to rest as a relic of a forgotten enthusiasm. Homing in on the absurdities of sudden renown in mass culture and the seemingly inexorable arc of public reception, The Golden Fruits is a deliciously sly novel. Sarraute mocks a variety of pretentious or otherwise distorted responses to the latest literary thing without ever letting us know if the imaginary book is, in fact, any good. Perhaps The Golden Fruits, the novel-within-the-novel, deserves its final obscurity in the back stacks. Or perhaps the elusive communion between author and reader described in The Golden Fruits' closing pages suggests the novel-within-the-novel's true merit.
Such communion, whether or not entailed by the quality of The Golden Fruits, has such inherent value that it makes critical judgments largely irrelevant. We know from The Age of Suspicion that Sarraute admired literature that detailed quixotic efforts to bridge the abyss between self and Other. There she wrote of Dostoevsky's Eternal Husband that a "continual, almost maniacal need for contact, for an impossible, soothing embrace . . . attracts all of these characters like dizziness and incites them on all occasions to try, by any means whatsoever, to clear a path to the 'other,' to penetrate him as deeply as possible and make him lose his disturbing, unbearable opaqueness; in their turn, it impels them to confide in him and show him their own innermost recesses." This yearned-for collusion also impels the writer to create, but art cannot seal itself off from the world's encroachments. Between Life and Death, the novel that represents Sarraute's most sustained and penetrating treatment of the writer's process, revolves around the attempts of an anonymous author-protagonist to complete a book. Here Sarraute stages quasi-mystical epiphanies of creative power, but the triumphs are transient, offering a moment's deliverance from a flux of disappointments, self-doubt, readers' misunderstandings, preening judgments of critics, and agonizing discussions with one's family. In Do You Hear Them? such flickers of potential exaltation are located not within the mind of the artist but in the sensibility of a connoisseur at odds with his children, whose incessant laughter he perceives as ridicule. Although both novels present glimpses of transcendence in the realm of the aesthetic, neither would suggest that Sarraute wanted to revive the romantic cult of art. She was far too skeptical, too alert to nuance and complexity and the interplay of countervailing forces, to fall back on such a set of anachronisms. It's not surprising that the novels that most explicitly address the dynamics of cultureóThe Planetarium, The Golden Fruits, Between Life and Death, and Do You Hear Them?óappeared in the wake of Sarraute's accession to prominence in France, after more than a decade of writing in relative obscurity. Rejected by the larger houses, Tropisms received exactly one review when published in 1939. Even the small print run of Portrait of a Man Unknown failed to sell out, despite a laudatory introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, an early admirer who eventually came to share de Beauvoir's negative view of Sarraute. Because of its originality, Sarraute's work deserved to be evaluated on its own terms, but of course it never was. Critics and journalists began to take note in the '50s because of the rise of the so-called nouveau roman, a loose grouping of writers who, working independently of one another, had dispensed with the customary paraphernalia of fiction. As a school, its membership wasn't easy to pin down, but invariably the same trio was identified as its core: Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Butor. The three of them were rather different writersóeven as the nouveau roman was still gathering steam, Robbe-Grillet stressed how his work diverged from Sarraute's in crucial respectsóbut their affiliated gestures of refusal toward the conventional novel gave their works the shape of a coherent phenomenon, hovering somewhere between a trend and a full-blown movement. The term nouveau roman became embedded in literary discourse and is here to stay, of course. The fault lines, however, only deepened among the New Novelists over the years, and Sarraute in particular maintained a fiercely idiosyncratic stance.
That said, the visibility and notoriety of the nouveau roman was a great boon to Sarraute's career, and also for readers in the English-speaking world, who were graced with superb translations of her novels and criticism (prepared by Maria Jolas and, later, Barbara Wright, both of them in consultation with Sarraute, who spoke fluent English) published by the estimable George Braziller not long after the original works appeared in France. Readers at the time doubtless failed to appreciate their good fortune. Given the present state of Franco-American relations, it seems utterly fantastic that a mere few decades ago, a curious American could follow the career of a French novelistóand a groundbreaking, often difficult one at thatóas it evolved book by book, in English versions produced in collaboration with the author herself. The reviewers kept up as well, and if they didn't always love the books, at least they felt obliged to try and understand them. Nowadays French books seem to attract notice only if they serve up generous helpings of delectably Gallic sex, rendered in recognizably Continental modes of clinical impassivity (Millet's Sexual Life of Catherine M.) or the grotesque (Houellebecq's Elementary Particles). As for Sarraute, only through the recent efforts of the indefatigable Dalkey Archive Press have Martereau and Do You Hear Them? been restored to print. Most of her other works, including Tropisms, are currently unavailable, yet another glum reminder of the insularity of the American culture industry. As the books become harder to find, there's genuine risk that the nouveau roman will become little more than a convenient shorthand for a historical episode, grouped as one of a string of postwar Parisian fashions: the New Look, existentialism, the films of Godard and Truffaut, yé-yé music. This quiet neglect is particularly regrettable in the case of Sarraute, whose novels, as "new," challenging, and eminently readable as ever, deserve continued fresh appraisal. For the literary values that shine through Sarraute's worksóthe conceptual boldness, the subtlety of perception, the psychological acuity and imaginative amplitude, and, above all, the struggle to break free of ossified forms of expressionóare precisely those worth preserving.
James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.