The Golden Fruits
With the exception of the early Tropismes, all of Nathalie Sarraute’s books are now available in English. Thanks are due to her publisher and to Maria Jolas who, to quote Janet Flanner in The New Yorker, has put her work “into English of such verisimilitude that it seems merely orchestrated in another key.” Novels are rarely masterpieces, and this is as it should be; it is even rarer to find a translation that is perfect, and this, perhaps, is not as it should or could be.
When Nathalie Sarraute published her first novel, Portrait of a Man Unknown, in 1948, Sartre, in an Introduction, placed her with such authors of “entirely negative works” as Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, and the Gide of Les Faux-Monnayeurs, and called the whole genre “anti-novel.” In the Fifties, the anti-novel became the New Novel and Sarraute its originator. All these classifications are somewhat artificial and, if applied to Mme. Sarraute, difficult to account for. She has herself pointed out her ancestors, Dostoevsky (especially the Notes from Underground) and Kafka in whom she sees Dostoevsky’s legitimate heir. But this much is true: She wrote at least her first pair of novels, the Portrait and Martereau (1953), against the assumptions of the classical novel of the nineteenth century, where author and reader move in a common world of well-known entities and where easily identifiable characters can be understood through the qualities and possessions bestowed upon them. “Since then,” she writes in her book of essays, The Age of Suspicion, “[this character] has lost everything; his ancestors, his carefully built house, filled from cellar to garret with a variety of objects, down to the tiniest gewgaw, his sources of income and his estates, his clothes, his body, his face…his personality and, frequently, even his name.” Man as such is or has become unknown so that it matters little to the novelist whom he chooses as his “hero” and less into what kind of surrounding he puts him. And since “the character occupied the place of honor between reader and novelist,” since he was “the object of their common devotion,” this arbitrariness of choice indicates a serious break-down in communication.
In order to recover some of this lost common ground, Nathalie Sarraute very ingeniously took the nineteenth-century novel, supposedly the common cultural heritage of author and reader, as her point of departure and began by choosing her “characters” from this richly populated world. She fished them right out of Balzac and Stendhal, stripped them of all those secondary qualities—customs, morals, possessions—by which they could be dated, and retained only those bare essentials by which we remember them: avarice—the stingy father living with his homely, penny-pinching spinster daughter, the plot turning about her numerous illnesses, fancied or real, as in Portrait; hatred and boredom—the closely-knit family unit which still survives in France, the “dark entirely closed world” of mother, father, daughter, and nephew in Martereau, where the plot turns about the “stranger” who swindles …