‘I’m going to slash it!’

John Sturrock

Nathalie Sarraute had her own, esoteric way of doing well at school. When, at her Paris lycée, her class was asked whether anyone had read War and Peace, the 13-year-old Nathalie (née Natalya Tcherniak, in Russia), did not want to say that she had. She was fearful: not of advertising how grown-up her reading had already become but of what she might have to listen to should her teacher ‘dare to touch’ the book and the ineffable Tolstoy be invested by the crass discourse of a pedagogue. There was a severity about Sarraute even in her tender years: she knew by the fourth form it seems that language can mortify as easily as it can bring to life, and that the hardest of all the things we can do with words is to put the exactly right ones to our feelings.

This small, subcutaneous drama is reported in the Chronology of Sarraute’s life that starts the Oeuvres complètes. It could as well have made part of one of her novels, which are formed of a succession of private dramas no larger but just as searching. The situation in which a superior schoolgirl forgoes the admiration she might have earned for her precocity, involves what, when she turned writer, Sarraute was to call a ‘tropism’. The term is one that she took from the natural sciences, and when she adopted it she may have been thinking of Proust, who had recently made such apt and witty use of Maeterlinck’s L’lntelligence des fleurs in describing the first, charmingly camp pas de deux between the Baron de Charlus and his newest heart-throb, Jupien. In biology, a tropism is the instinctive movement that occurs when an organism responds to an outside stimulus: the often microscopic reorientation by which a plant or an animal reacts to what impinges on it. Tropisms are thus dramatic encounters of a sort, enacted without benefit of consciousness among the vegetable and animal orders.

With Sarraute they became the metaphor that gave her access to what she regarded as the rightful subject-matter for a modern novelist. Transferred to the human order, these protozoan manoeuvrings could serve as a type for the secret fencing matches fought out between any two people coming psyche to psyche, when one psyche will be out to take advantage of the other. Sarraute’s long career in fiction was to be a search for new, ever more pared-down forms in which to turn these barely detectable fluctuations into words, so as to make them apparent for once in all their comic, damaging, or simply lamentable ephemerality. She has carried that search on with rare single-mindedness and to wonderfully entertaining effect for almost sixty years, her last book (Ici) having been published two years ago, when, like the century, she was 95 years old.

Sarraute began writing in the early Thirties, after several years of practising, half-heartedly and only because her father wanted it, at the Paris Bar. (This forensic experience helped later in the shaping of her fiction and it’s one she shares, oddly, with the only other living French novelist I would compare with her as a source of intelligent pleasure, Robert Pinget.) She went about literature slowly once she had taken to it. Tropisms, her first book, was not published until 1939, seven years after she began writing it. It is a sparse but mordant collection of short scenes of social exchange whose ordinariness dissolves in Sarraute’s acid-bath into something quite ominous. With a grim smile and a daunting accuracy, she flashes her torch down into those unlit places of the self where we rearm for our intimate wars with one another. She had chosen to occupy once and for all the territory most favourable to her ambitions both as a novelist and as a moralist. In Tropisms she invented her own form of Social Darwinism, by using zoological metaphors to indicate the – in truth, indescribable – predatory or else self-protective urges of our species.

Tropisms was not a success: its methods were unfamiliar, and 1939 was not a good year in which to publish your first book. Sarraute had to wait, and be a postwar writer. Although, as a Jew, she was under threat all through the Occupation, even divorcing her non-Jewish husband at one point in order to protect him, she survived and she managed to keep writing. After 1945, she was taken up by Sartre, who had read Tropisms when it first appeared and had liked it. He thought he recognised a fellow spirit, someone like himself who was contemptuous of essentialist notions of human character, who saw the bourgeois world in which she moved as ruled everywhere by bad faith, and who knew what a tax our fear of judgment by others is on our ‘authenticity’ as social agents. Sarraute was indeed a Sartrian, but of a domestic, not a philosophical kind, and she showed no liking for Sartre’s wild-man politics. He encouraged her, publishing in Les Temps modernes an essay in which she laid brilliantly waste – and why not? – the claims to poetic greatness of the recently dead Paul Valéry, and then writing the Introduction for her second piece of fiction, Portrait d’un inconnu, of 1947.

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