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What’s Going On Upstairs?

Do You Hear Them?

by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Maria Jolas
Braziller, 147 pp., $5.95

There has been a tendency lately in France to say that, after all, Mme Sarraute is not a “New Novelist,” since she is interested in psychological substance rather than in word-games. She clearly holds the old-fashioned view that “reality” is a pre-existing something that language tries despairingly to express. Whereas some members of the “New Novel” group take language itself as a kind of absolute medium to be solipsistically shuffled and reshuffled like a pack of cards, she, on the contrary, gives the impression of being up to her ears in the quagmire of the inarticulate, from which she is transmitting fragmentary, repetitive, and insistent messages, in the hope that communication will not prove entirely impossible. Her characteristic punctuation device is points de suspension, the three dots…, which she uses ten, twenty, or thirty times on a given page, and which rat-tat-tat like SOS signals.

But communication with whom or between whom? The problem in this latest novel is the same as in all the others. Mme Sarraute sees human reality as consisting of myriads of tiny impulses—the famous “tropisms.” Some merge together to form streams of emotion, others die out before they reach the level of consciousness, others again oscillate indecisively as “person” comes into contact with “person,” either in silence, in speech, or—as is often the case in this book—in laughter. The word “person” has to be put with inverted commas, because the relationship of the subjective consciousness to the inarticulate behind it or beneath it is just as uncertain as any interpersonal connection. I can tell myself what I am only by means of words taken from the Not-I, that linguistic element in which my mental lungs breathe, just as my physical lungs have to operate in the general atmosphere.

But whereas the oxygen in the physical atmosphere is perpetually renewed, the linguistic atmosphere on which the mind depends is constantly going dead, because given words—“mass-produced words, ready-to-wear words that are already worn to a shred”—can never correspond exactly to the complex novelty of the fresh psychological moment. This is a never-ending complaint with Mme Sarraute. On the one hand, she is constantly dissatisfied with words, because they are always inadequate; on the other hand, she has nothing but words with which to lament their inadequacy and to struggle toward a formulation:

It’s really enough to get discouraged…No, we must have a little more patience…It hasn’t got a name, you understand…No more names, no more labels, no more definitions…Where do the words come from? They are on me. They are plastered on me…the words cover me…pull them off…

How could you think that these ordinary words, used by other people, by outsiders…these words taken from their wordbooks, from their dictionaries…how could these old sclerotic words retain, enclose, the fluid, fluctuating thing that circulates among us, in constant transformation, spreading out in every direction, that no boundary can stop…that is ours, ours alone…What outside word can set things right between us, separate or bring us together?…You know perfectly well that here, between us, all these words….

What a Sarraute novel presents us with, then, is a mass of words writhing in dubiety. The author has inevitably to be classed as a “New Novelist,” because, in the first place, her primary subject or hero or antihero is language, rather than anything else. Additional reasons are that she discards plot, linear development, social description, characterization, and definition of the verbal source. The words appear to be wriggling about like a mass of worms, or flickering like the dabs of paint in a pointilliste picture, or dancing like the motes in a sunbeam. She differs from some of her fellow practitioners only in that this verbal mass is meant, however uncertainly, to be referential. As one becomes familiar with it, it unscrambles itself, to some extent, into a meaningful text that can be thought of as a kind of short story.

Do You Hear Them? is “about” something. An elderly man, sitting downstairs with an elderly friend and neighbor, hears the younger members of his family laughing upstairs. Are they mocking him, because of his attachment to a particular aesthetic object, an antique statue of some indefinite animal? Are they fond of him, but expressing the natural ebullience of youth? Are they a younger generation of philistines who have no feeling for art? Are they right to live only for the present and future, and is he simply a product of a mistaken academic training? Should he rush upstairs to upbraid them, or curry favor with them, or even commit an act of violence on them? Can he be sure that he himself appreciates the statue? Will the statue end up in the Louvre, where his descendants will give it a passing mention when they pilot visiting provincials, as a social rite, through the boredom of the museum? These and other possibilities are treated in short sections as variations on the initial situation. The structure might be termed musical, in the sense that certain motifs intertwine: the paranoiac anxiety of the old man, the ambiguous still center of the statue, and the recurrent laughter of the young people.

On reading the book in Mrs. Jolas’s translation, I was vaguely reminded of something; not by Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton Burnett, or Dostoyevsky, who are generally considered to have influenced Mme Sarraute. What could it be?…It was present as a teasing immanence or imminence…there, I had almost caught it…that tone of neurotic doubt…a scrupulosity that sets the teeth on edge…edging gingerly up to a diaphanous truth that flits off like a butterfly…I rush after it to the next flower, to the next crevice of the mind…then, with a swoop of the net, I…he?…that younger person…the younger person inside the older, or the older inside the younger…nabbed it…got it!

Well, it turned out to be a memory of Max Beerbohm’s “A Mote in the Middle Distance,” his parody of the later style of Henry James in A Christmas Garland (1912), read many years ago. James didn’t use points de suspension—his mania was rather for inverted commas—but one could, at a pinch, insert them with the appropriate Sarrautian effect between Beerbohm’s Jamesian phrases or sentences. Keith Tantalus is lying in bed early on Christmas morning and wondering whether his sister, Eva, has cheated by taking an anticipatory peep into her stocking. Young Tantalus is a mass of tantalized “tropisms”:

It was characteristic of our friend—was indeed “him all over”—that his fear of what she was going to say was as nothing to his fear of what she might be going to leave unsaid. He had, in his converse with her, never been so conscious as now of the intervening leagues; they had never so insistently beaten the drum of his ear; and he caught himself in the act of awfully computing, with a certain statistical pattern, the distance between Rome and Boston. He has never been able to decide which of these points he was psychically the nearer to at the moment when Eva, replying “Well, one does, anyhow, leave a margin for the pretext, you know!” made him for the first time in his life, wonder whether she were not more magnificent than even he had given her credit for being.

This could not be a parody of Mme Sarraute; no one is ever thought of as “magnificent” in her bleak universe; moreover, the point of view remains consistent; the prose does not, as with her, leap without transition from third person narrative to first person statement, from unattached rhetorical questions to interior monologue, from omniscient author to bewildered subjective consciousness, in order to create that semantic shimmer which is meant to convey the uncertainties of reality. But what Beerbohm is poking fun at is a tendency in James that he has in common with Sarraute; the tendency to bring a welter of words to bear on a tiny point that is, in the last resort, left indefinite. The anxious effort to circumscribe meaning makes it, paradoxically, evaporate; the trees begin to hide the forest. As Beerbohm puts it, with good-natured malice:

Don’t you,” she exclaimed, “see?”

The mote in the middle distance?” he asked. “Did you ever, my dear, know me to see anything else? I tell you it blocks out everything. It’s a cathedral, it’s a herd of elephants, it’s the whole habitable globe. Oh, it’s, believe me, of an obsessiveness!”

Mme Sarraute’s vision of “tropisms” is also of an obsessiveness. The question is: does it always bring reality into sharper focus, or does it not sometimes blur things that a more traditional technique might, with advantage, particularize? I make the query in a commonsensical spirit, of course, but my common sense stretches to include the notion that it is often the function of art to make more pregnantly obscure that which, before, was too superficially clear; to shed light may be to illuminate significantly against a background of darkness. My difficulty in trying to appreciate Mme Sarraute’s books, like some other “New Novels,” is that they produce an impression of obscurity without corresponding enlightenment. What I understand them to be saying is a banality translated into linguistic or structural strangeness, rather than a new perception caught with linguistic peculiarity. Are they really an avant-garde, or an arrièregarde making avant-garde gestures?

If, for instance, Do You Hear Them? is “about” the fluctuating relationships between a husband-father-grandfather and his young wife-children-grandchildren, why are the details not made specific? L’Express, quoted on the dust cover, said:

Two hundred and thirty-two pages of a kind of slow-motion tempest which expresses more on the death of culture, the end of a society, incommunicability than ten studies devoted to the generation gap or changes of our era.

I cannot see this. It seems to me that Mme Sarraute has taken the cliché of incommunicability and, without analyzing it, rung the changes on it. She has a fundamental poetic conception: the old man is downstairs, the young people upstairs; between them are two “objects”—the statue, around which their disagreements swirl, and laughter hanging ambiguously in the air. Laughter, perhaps, is the auditory foam produced by a clash of tropisms and, being a still more equivocal sign than linguistic utterance, can feed paranoiac questioning.

In spite of the variety of verbal forms, which is meant to suggest interpersonal reality, the book gives the impression of being written basically from a single point of view, that of an uneasy, suspicious consciousness, which is more interested in its own worries than in the reality of the Other. I itch to know the composition of the young group: How old are they? How do their attitudes vary according to temperament and development? Is there really a young wife and why has she ganged up with the others? These are things that would have interested a more traditional novelist.

To run the young people together as a laughing chorus is a thematic device, but it represents only one aspect of the process of aging—the feeling we occasionally have that life has been taken over by the young, that the “hungry generations” tread us down. But the generation gap is only a vague generalization; it is also true that age brings bonuses: a grandparent can commune lyrically with grandchildren, just as an elderly professor and young students can enjoy intellectual pleasure together. Mme Sarraute may say that it was no part of her purpose in this book to show the positive side of aging; perhaps not, but I am trying to elucidate the effect of ingenious, and ultimately dispiriting, monotony the work makes on me. There is no love in it, even of a tragic kind; only mistrust.

A comparable vagueness hangs over the treatment of the art object. Why, if it is a genuine work of art and not a phony bourgeois treasure, should some at least of the young people not appreciate it? Aesthetic appreciation is not, fundamentally, an effect of culture (strangely enough for so anti-bourgeois a person, Mme Sarraute at times almost seems to be defending bourgeois culture against the new barbarism); it is an inherent faculty, which culture only serves to nourish and define. If this were not so, the perpetual rebirth of art could not take place, as it manifestly does. Admittedly, Mme Sarraute has a more positive attitude to art than to human relationships; she devotes a long, poetic paragraph (p. 84) to the statue as still center, an embodiment of perfection beyond language, an impersonal entity with which the impersonal center of the observer (the old man?) mutely communes. Yet I can only repeat, quoting Keats again, that the still unravished bride of quietness cannot convincingly be made a bone of contention between age and youth; it is just as likely to be an objective bond linking very different subjectivities, whether old or young.

If the book Do You Hear Them? is meant to be, like the statue, a still center made up of dancing motes, in which Mme Sarraute’s subjectivity offers the reader’s subjectivity the refuge of objective peace, then, alas, it fails for me. It serves the very different purpose of making my mind bristle irritably with unresolved questions.

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