‘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.

This was Tropisms made continuous and drawn out to the length of a novel: a profound and engaging demonstration of the troubling things that are felt but do not get spoken whenever intimates, acquaintances or even strangers meet. Sarraute’s victims – and it’s families she has the cruellest fun with – come on stage as innocents awaiting their turn to be rumbled; they don’t have to wait long: she is the arch-rumbler. No one, however coherent and assured a figure they may cut when they first appear in her books, will survive her attentions without serious damage, because their integrity is soon shown to be inauthentic, a false impression they give which, alas, the timid souls all around them are only too glad to go along with. For these timid ones are the individuals who can’t bear to be individuals, they long for the security of ‘fusion’, of merging indistinguishably with some group or other. They feel nothing but veneration for the magisterial figures whom they mistake for enviable paragons of firmness and self-assurance. For their pains they are condemned by Sarraute to a condition of incurable anxiety, because anxiety, though unwanted, is a sign of life, of humanity indeed. She is on the side of the anxious, of that class of person singled out in Portrait d’un inconnu, the Hypersensitive: ‘She who trembles at the faintest breath, whom the least contact causes to shudder and contract, she endures her blows without flinching. Barely other than a wavering in her, a vacillation – almost nothing.’

These ‘almost nothings’ are the exclusive stuff of Sarraute’s oeuvre, the waverings that may escape the notice even of the waverer yet represent a crucial moment in the history of their emotions. In the instance above, the Hypersensitive one is a daughter on the point of coming desperately out against a bullying father, and of telling him triumphantly that she has at last met a man who is willing to marry her. ‘Who would recognise her?’ asks the text (or the novelist). That question is Sarraute’s severe reproach to the inhabitants of the world she writes about which is every one of us. By elaborating on this unhappy woman’s passage from cowed symbiosis with her father to nascent rebellion, Sarraute shows her own humane hand. It’s the put-upon who come out best from her fiction, and the seemingly invulnerable who have the furthest to fall. Like all the best moral pessimists, Sarraute is a great leveller.

Portrait d’un inconnu was not a success any more than Tropisms had been. What struck people about it at the time – what still strikes some about Sarraute, depressingly – was that it was so ‘abstract’: nothing much ever seemed to happen, nowhere got properly described, none of the people had been given a name, the dialogue and the narration ran confusingly into each other. For the novelist the complaints were encouraging, they were after all withdrawal symptoms; by frustrating readers of their habitual fix – major happenings, well-marked characters, lots of scenery – she was alerting them to how deceitful she believed the conventions of the realist novel had become. By her abstractions she would be denying them the same illusory ‘solidity’ that is an object of such shameful desire in Portrait d’un inconnu, as in the novels that followed it.

Sarraute’s methods were unfamiliar but they were not so new as to defy comprehension; her novels can be called ‘abstract’ only if your measure of ‘reality’ is one that has stood unchanged since Balzac was writing. Sarraute was a historicist. She had read widely (including in English: she did a year’s history at Oxford in 1920-1); and when she started to write for herself she saw no point in attempting to do the same things by the same means as had been used by novelists in the past. The thing was to keep the art of fiction moving on, in the direction laid down for it by the great names of the generation preceding her own – Proust, Joyce, Woolf. (There was also Dostoevsky, of whom more in a minute.) They had turned the novel definitively inwards and taken possession of areas of consciousness that might seem near to the limits of the sayable. Sarraute’s tropisms were to be a way, not of penetrating further even than Proust or Joyce or Woolf had been able to into the obscurities of the sub-, or in her case, better to say the preconscious, but of representing what was lurking there by other means. Her way is to display, never in so many words to analyse, our most fugitive sensations as and when they arise, not in the real time of the mind but in a fictive slow motion. Sarraute differs from her chosen predecessors by daring to be less explicit than they were. There are no explanatory captions as it were underneath her tiny scenes of intimate triumph or distress. Where Proust, for example, stands back and revels in the lucidity with which he can account for the behaviour of his (named) characters, Sarraute allows no such cordon sanitaire between ourselves and the nameless individuals overheard socialising in her novels. Having long ago made her escape from school, she isn’t now going to play teacher, and foreclose on the sensations she puts on display by declaring what their significance is. We’re only too likely to do that for ourselves, and rather spoil things by ‘fixing’ the sensations so artfully presented to us in their true, labile state. But if Sarraute knows she is playing a losing game with our craving for definition, it’s one she loses with great good humour.

As a novelist of adamantly progressive views where form was concerned, Sarraute inevitably got drawn into the fuss that surrounded the nouveau roman, when literature’s militant tendency in France took up its cause in the late Fifties. This may have done her some immediate good, in giving a by nature discreet person greater visibility, but in the long run it was a pity, because it associated her too strongly with the brutalism of the New Novel’s front man, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet himself was never the literary vandal he found it useful in those days to let it seem that he was, but he was far less studied and shrewd in polemic than Sarraute, who knew that the individual talent, however avant-garde, owes almost everything to literary tradition.

There was the great debt in her own case to her compatriot Dostoevsky, the 19th-century novelist from whom Sarraute clearly learnt most. In Dostoevsky, as we know, people act in the strangest, contradictory ways, and we don’t expect to be told what has led them to do so. As characters they remain in one piece only because they have names and an état civil; they can hardly be thought of as psychological entities, as they give way to what Sarraute calls their ‘bizarre contortions’. Bizarre of course only because opaque: could we look inside these oddballs we would learn that their contortions are ‘like the needle of the galvanometer which retraces, even as it amplifies them, the most infinitesimal variations in a current, those subtle, barely perceptible, fugitive, contradictory, evanescent movements ... whose incessant play constitutes the invisible thread of all human relationships and the very substance of our lives.’

Had Dostoevsky had the techniques to hand that a 20th-century writer has, he would surely, Sarraute suggests, have set about explicating the inner lives of his characters. In her terms, that would have been a disaster, because it would have had the effect of restoring ‘order’, the thing people seem to want most and which they would be braver not to want at all. Sarraute writes as a dialectician, pitting the forces of order, in the widest possible sense of the word, against the blind will to disruption. Order is bad, it is synonymous with the inert, the dead, the safe, the already known and labelled. The disorderly ‘contortions’ that constantly threaten it are, on the contrary, a gratifying evidence of life and of authenticity. They may not amount to much outwardly compared with the sensational volte-faces that are possible for a Karamazov or a Stavrogin, but in their modest way they are Sarraute’s ‘Notes from Underground’.

The overground to that underground is Sarraute’s own bit of French society: bourgeois Paris. But it didn’t have to be Paris or bourgeois or even French society, because what she has in her sights is the universal social condition, not a state of being peculiar to the domestic manipulators, professional dissemblers and culture snobs that she takes for her local examples. This universality is one good reason the décor is always kept so bare in Sarraute, and the dramatis personae remain anonymous. They are most of them personal pronouns only, a singular il or elle or, when there is need for the coercive voice of a collective to be heard, a plural ils or elles. They remain as pronouns because the pronominal is also the pre-nominal: there is no applying proper names at the tropismic level. Names in fiction keep their bearers at a certain formal distance from us and lend their ‘contortions’ an objectivity which it is Sarraute’s whole purpose to avoid.

And no names means no ‘characters’ as such, except for purposes of parody, as in the novel that has a proper name for its title, Marterereau, her third book. Martereau is a novelist’s in-joke; he is someone who has been granted a good solid name (marteau is French for a hammer) but denied the consoling solidity of which it should have been the guarantee. He is a characterless character allotted a function in the plot that beautifully contradicts his good solid name; for Martereau is an homme de paille, or man of straw, who allows a house paid for by someone else to be registered in his name, as a tax dodge. But then comes the comedy of uncertainty: is the foursquare Martereau what he seems, or is he perhaps a conman, who means to hang on to the house for himself? He could equally well be either. He is merely a source of ingenious speculation on the part of others whose status qua ’character’ has no ultimate foundation. Sarraute’s point is that to affix a name to a living and therefore indeterminate human being is to freeze them into a premature essence. (‘Call no man happy till he be dead,’ said the Greeks; ‘Call no man anything till he be dead,’ is Sarraute’s more comprehensive, post-Existentialist version.)

This isn’t just a matter of the novelist making an amusing case against superannuated notions of ‘character’ in fiction. Sarraute is advising us on how we might best react to real life and real living people. Fictional characters don’t remain safely trapped within fiction, they are the models we like to go to when pleasurably bent on our amateur readings of the ‘contortionists’ around us – who, by a worrying reversal, may seem disappointingly pallid or unreal by comparison with their fictional originals. This on the face of it is outrageous, but one more Sarrautian proof needless to say of our longing for an intelligible solidity. She is having none of it; she would rather we went with the flux, instead of feebly abdicating from it under the illusion that we have now made safe sense of the people we know.

After 1960, Sarraute’s books became more inward still, their settings more tenuous, their prose more measured. She became the supreme contriver of a new anti-phony, by playing an overt, actually spoken, suspiciously trite dialogue off against another, covert dialogue, which was the reverse of trite and seldom benign. This was her supporting sous-conversation, an undercurrent which is oral in its form but made unspeakable by its content, both wildly indecorous as it may become and inaccessible even to those imagined as engaged in it. Almost nothing now needed to be happening in the books to set this seditious music playing. Les Fruits d’or, a novel of 1963, has for its excuse a newly published novel of the same title as itself, and it plumbs delectable depths of inauthenticity in lightly dramatising the fatuities and concealed malevolence of smart book-talk. In Vous les entendez?, written a decade later, the nearest thing to an ‘event’ is the sound of offstage youthful laughter as two pompous art collectors sit admiring a pre-Columbian stone dog and their own good taste for admiring it. The laughter though is a worry for them: is it ‘fresh and innocent’ as one interpretation would have it, or is it, perish the thought, ‘sly’? Who is to say? Not Nathalie Sarraute, though this was the first book she published after the disturbances of May 1968, and since the precious stoneware ends up in the cellar with an oyster-shell ashtray fixed to its back, why doubt that this civilised but subversive writer had enjoyed the momentary eruption of youthful anarchy (and deplored the consequent restoration of ‘order’).

Youthfulness, and the harm that is done with and to it in society, is a theme all but pervasive in Sarraute. She is no Freudian but more than willing to take the experience of childhood as a template for the future. Her grown-ups suspect, even if they never quite recognise, that in their most agitated moments they are responding in childlike ways, that they are still children while everyone else has apparently gained the security that comes with being adult. Yet by their regressions, and by kicking against the temptations to a dim dependency, the insecure ones are becoming painfully alive again.

In 1983, Sarraute published a book about her own early childhood, under the plainest of titles, Enfance. She had always said before that she had no wish to write autobiographically, though she had come close to it I fancy in parts of the novel she describes as her own favourite, Entre la vie et la mort (of 1968), a sometimes sardonic, at other times serious exploration of the conditions under which a word-obsessed child might be seen as predestined to write.

Enfance is far more direct than that, and Sarraute’s one concession in all these years to an easy popularity. It’s not on the other hand quite conventional in form. It is discontinuous, the writer’s memories being kept independent of each other as she recovers them, not smoothed over into a single narrative; and when she senses a need to, she pauses from remembering and enters, by way of a sous-conversation, into a dialogue with herself, in which she wonders how truthful she is being in appearing to recall these particular moments of her past.

There could be no cleverer or more elegant a compromise between the formal and the confessional than that found by Sarraute in Enfance; and no more seductive entrée to her oeuvre. Her childhood was not perhaps a good one. Her parents divorced two years after she was born, and she lived, first with her mother and her stepfather, in Russia, and then, permanently though under the threat of being returned to her mother, with her father and young stepmother, in France. A What Maisie Knew start to her life, and one retraced with a stylish composure by the writer, who is willing to guess how things actually stood between the various couples in the story, but unwilling to impose her guesswork on us as the final truth.

Sarraute is all scruples right from the start of Enfance, when it comes to distinguishing the factual from the hypothetical. As with the first memory that she chooses to include there. This, typically, is a form of words, and foreign words at that, spoken to the five or six-year-old Nathalie by her German nanny: ‘Nein, das tust du nicht,’ ‘No, you mustn’t do that’. The ‘that’ which she mustn’t do is stick a pair of scissors into the upholstery in a Swiss hotel room. The prohibition is futile; into the silk chair-back go the scissors, and at once ‘something flabby, greyish is escaping through the split.’ From such homely acts of insubordination are novelists formed; little Nathalie’s scissors have been going in ever since.

‘I’m going to slash it,’ is the bold answer that she remembers making to her nanny, an answer she is now prepared to develop à la Sarraute: ‘I’m warning you, I’m going to take the plunge, leap out of this decent, inhabited, warm, gentle world, I’m going to wrench myself out of it, fall, sink into the uninhabited, into the void ... ’ This is what she reads into the event nearly eighty years later, drawing out its implications as themselves determined by the future. The episode may be no more in memory than an exchange of German words, which are repeated several times over by Sarraute as she tries to get to the bottom of them, but how promising that little exchange turns out to have been. This is where her forensic side comes out, as the scraps of evidence are held up one by one and then interrogated, in this case quite briefly, to see what they might yield by way of a motive.

The Oeuvres complètes contains Nathalie Sarraute’s 12 novels, six plays, all but one of them written for radio, the critical essays that she published in 1964 as L’Ere du soupçon, and the texts of the lectures she has given, in France and abroad. The Chronology at the front is as full as one could ask for, the notes at the back rather fuller. Whether this volume will turn out to contain the whole of Sarraute, we must wait to see. For word is that she is writing still, every day, her one concession to her great age being to do so at home rather than the café tables she once liked to work at.

Sarraute has not up until now done well in English. The first translations of her work, by Maria Jolas, were admittedly poor, a travesty of the prose that in French edges all the time towards poetry, so careful, compacted and rhythmical is it; the English of the later translations, done by Barbara Wright, is faithful in every respect, however, having had to pass the intimidating test of being read aloud to the author. Nathalie Sarraute has now become a Pléiade author in her own lifetime. That is exceptional; it’s high time the admiration for her here grew accordingly.