Between Life and Death
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 their difference of gender, which only indicated that they belonged to the great majority of couples (nothing “queer” about them), was the evidence that here was a pair who kept up with the latest cultural currents—currents which would soon turn into a veritable maelstrom engulfing the newly launched novel “everybody” was talking about.
At the opening of Between Life and Death, we are again in a literary milieu, but now it is not the novel but the novelist we find. In person. The voice we hear is male, of course—we can gather that right away—and it is describing its methods of work. “‘I always write on the typewriter. Never in longhand.”’ At once the reader is aware of a familiar smell—the incense of fame. That man is not just talking to himself. He is on an imaginary stage of some sort, a confident projection of his own ego into the world. Obligingly and doubtless not for the first time, he “acts out” the process of creation. It is a demonstration, like glass-blowing. There he is at his desk, frowning, pursing his lips, shaking his head, screwing up his eyes (to get perspective); he tears the sheet of paper out of the machine, crumples it into a ball, throws it on the floor (“No, it won’t do”), puts in a fresh sheet of paper, starts over. Over and over. As often as ten times in a single sitting. It goes on like this day after day: “I reread. I tear out the page. I crumple it. I toss it aside.” Suiting the gesture to the word, his arm rises and falls, folds and unfolds, like the “arm” of a machine, illustrating the mechanics of production. And his wife adds her voice. Yes, that’s the way he works. His study is a mass of waste paper. He throws the rejects on the floor. Some days he comes out reeling. He doesn’t hear you when you speak to him.
No doubt remains. He has to be a successful writer. If he were a failure, nobody would be interested to hear how he worked, whether he wrote by hand or on the typewriter, how much he revised, what he did with his first drafts, and so on. And the wife’s two bits’ worth clinches it. When you live with a great man, a perfectionist, you are resigned to his precious litter, his bouts of inattention. Her dulled voice implies a public, not just the immediate listeners who constitute a silence around him, but what is known as an audience. The form, then, taking shape in the first chapter, is the interview. Not a single interview, with a sympathetic critic or TV host, such as you would find described in a realistic novel, but dozens, hundreds, all interviews boiled down to their purest essence.
Such interrogatories are the modern index to fame, above all in Europe where the publication of a book is the signal alerting a mass of professional questioners with pencils and note-books, tape-recorders, microphones, cameras. A factory whistle has blown in the communications industry. Amateur questioners too, rising from behind a palm in a hotel lobby, approaching after a lecture, concealed in trains, behind the white coat of the family doctor, the starched uniform of the nurse: “Where do you find your ideas?” “How did you get your start?” “So you make your corrections with a ball point? You have a ‘thing’ about fountain pens? How interesting.” If it is true that every citizen today believes he has one book in him (the story of his life), then the legion of interviewers, eager for the recipe, the trade secret, is potentially equal to the whole of humanity. The situation in its automatism and inherent repetitiousness is comical, and the author who takes it seriously, swells with its importance, is a fool, like the poor clown onstage talking about the final “mystery” of creation.
Yet already in the opening chapter there is a fly in the ointment. A small voice detaches itself from the reverential silence. It belongs to a woman, and that woman is a writer herself. A budding writer, apparently, because she is so timid. But she too knows what it is to suffer and doubt, tear sheets of paper off the typewriter, crumple them into balls, start over, to lie awake at night. Of course there can be no comparison; she is not famous; nobody could want to know, except in mockery, about her habits of work. Frightened by her own daring, she shrinks back into the circle of the others. A second budding writer, an “I” this time, is pushed forward, struggling; denying any literary ambitions, he flees to safety in the crowd, refusing to listen to the encouragements of the famous man, who remains in the center alone.
In Mme. Sarraute’s work, you often find a circle surrounding a single figure, an “it” in the middle, as in a children’s game. To be chosen “it,” however, is not as enviable as it looks at first. Isolated, you can become the butt of tormentors before you know what has happened; the rules of the game have been changed without a word of warning. You have been betrayed by the “ring” around you who have led you on, maneuvered you into the spotlight by flattery, and now start closing in, abetted by your own need of praise and reassurance, the inner traitor, always seeking to join them. This encirclement befell the eponymous hero of The Golden Fruits, but we were not privy to the novel’s sufferings as it was bounced about like a pinball in the game of taste-making, unable to escape or come to rest on a fixed point, its own selfhood or identity. It was a mute like the medallioned oak door of The Planetarium, which could not disclose whether it was beautiful or ugly or so-so. But in the present novel, although we start as onlookers, amused or repelled by a comic spectacle, we are eventually precipitated into the tragic arena of a consciousness, where the “it” stands alone.
The famous man of the first pages, not unaware of his danger, believes he can beat the game by splitting into two, one part remaining in the center bathed in a soft light while his other part, the common man, denying any special talent (it’s just a dreary industriousness; application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair), seeks to find a place in the dark of the auditorium. That simple half of himself would like to know, just as much as they, what it was that made him a writer, set him apart. Well, he says modestly, resuming the interrupted “interview,” maybe some of it was hereditary. In the genes. He had a Breton grandfather who was a tomb-stone-cutter in his youth—quite a character; you could almost call him creative, the way he improved on people’s epitaphs with inventions of his own. On the other side, he had Italian blood; that grandfather was a shepherd. And as a child he himself had a passion for words. Yes, it went that far back; as long as he could remember, he was playing by himself with words.
Then (a new chapter is starting) the reader is aware of a sort of air turbulence: a disconcerting shift has taken place. Of time, place, persons? He cannot yet make out. The voices are using some of the same words and expressions but they no longer sound the same. Now it is a “she” who is large and famous, and “he” has become youthful, humble, small. He has sent her a manuscript, and she has replied with a letter—such an astounding, generous letter. Reading him, she has discovered that they speak the same language; it is she, not he, who should be grateful—for the pleasure he has given her. A fellow spirit! At last someone he can talk to without the usual precautions. He can tell her anything. As a child, she too must have played with words. He is sure of it. Just like him, in his little crib, with the bars on the sides, pronouncing words to himself at night. They were his first toys. And when he was a little older, there was one word in particular…. Too late he recognizes the trap; her pale eyes are mocking him. She is not a fellow-spirit but one of the others, disguised, sent out to disarm him.