Hanging by a Thread

Between Life and Death

by Nathalie Sarraute
Braziller, 183 pp., $5.00

Nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute; drawing by David Levine

If you can imagine an auditory pantomime, you will be in the peculiar world of Nathalie Sarraute. A pantomime in reverse, where instead of tiptoeing action and gesture, you have vocables, so to speak, with their fingers to their mouths. In pantomime, the spectator “understands” a dialogue or soliloquy from the signs made by the performer (“He is afraid,” “He is arguing,” “His feelings are hurt”); in the mime of Nathalie Sarraute, an invisible action or plot—that is, a relation—is understood from snatches of overheard speech, the word in some way reverting to its primitive function of sign or indicator. And just as an “Ouch!” or a “Pow!” in a silent movie has a greater sonority than any “Ouch!” or a “Pow!” recorded on the sound track of a talkie, so the action in Nathalie Sarraute emerges from the murk that conceals it with a degree of visibility that is almost immodest.

The action is simplified, conventional, classic—a Punch and Judy show, Keystone comedy, or Pearl White cliffhanger—having to do with the seesawing of power in a human group, which can be as large as a mob or as small as a single integer. Some creature is being chased; he makes a narrow escape; they are after him again; he tries to hide, flattens himself against a wall, melts into a crowd, puts on a disguise; they catch him, tear off his false whiskers; he begs for mercy, uttering pathetic squeals. It is always the One and the Many, even and most emphatically when the delicate power-balance trembles and oscillates within a palpitating individual heart. In the outer world, alliances and ententes, protective networks, more or less durable, can be made, but within the individual heart there is a continuous division and multiplication. What counts statistically as one person is a turmoil of constant side-changing, treachery, surrender, appeasement; in that sanctum nobody can be safe even long enough to get his breath.

At the outset, Mme. Sarraute’s reader, finding himself in this strange and unquiet territory, may be somewhat bewildered. He hears voices talking but cannot assign them to bodies with names, hair-color, eye-color, identifying marks. It is like listening to a conversation—or a quarrel—on the other side of the thin partition of a hotel room; you long to rush down and consult the register. But there is no register in this hotel; no telltale shoes are put out at night in the corridor, and the occupants of the room next to you keep changing just as you think you have them placed.

At the opening of The Golden Fruits, a couple were reviewing an evening out: “You’re terrible. You could make an effort just once. I was so embarrassed.” Husband and wife, obviously. You knew it was the wife talking because in French the endings of the adjectives and past participles make the sex of the speaker clear. More important than…

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