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What Nathalie Knew

Childhood

by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Barbara Wright. in consultation with the author
Braziller, 246 pp., $14.95

Even if you stay away from all the books that nowadays offer you theories of it, autobiography appears to have become almost impossibly difficult to write. The old assumption that there were things back there to be remembered and set down in a reasonably coherent fashion has withered; infancy in particular has no official history, hardly even an official myth. Even in the psychoanalytic consulting room it is no longer pretended that the topics presenting themselves belong to a real past that can be recollected, rather than to the here and now; one has not so much a past as a transference.

If the word “truth” comes up at all, it has to be enclosed in quotation marks. If a narrative emerges, possessing the virtues of plausibility, causal connection, and closure, it may well provide a measure of satisfaction; but these after all are the virtues of fiction, and fiction that completely satisfies such conventional requirements can be suspected of mendacity. Memories of childhood are perhaps the most suspect of all, since they are shaped by forces that are the mortal enemies of veracity.

It must be conceded that to a dedicated anti-Freudian such as Vladimir Nabokov memory is an altogether simpler affair. In his foreword to Speak, Memory, written after all not so long ago, he explains that he wrote his Russian memories in English, then translated them into Russian, and finally did them again in English, struggling all the while to get the facts right; he re-remembered, consulted his family, cut things out “for the sake of over-all truth.” Is it the writer or the boy Nabokov who feels this?

The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black. A bronze angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany here and there in the darkness, reflected the odds and ends of light from the street, where the globes of the tall street lamps along the middle line were already diffusing their lunar glow. Gauzy shadows moved on the ceiling. In the stillness, the dry sound of a chrysanthemum petal falling upon the marble of a table made one’s nerves twang.

The equivalence of such adult representations with a young child’s emotion cannot be easily established.

Nathalie Sarraute is quite explicitly not doing any checking about her childhood in St. Petersburg and Paris. From time to time, in this book, the writer exchanges words with an alter ego, whose job it is to protest against grown-up embellishments and rhetorical extravagances. When this person suggests that before including a passage on a certain illustration in a children’s book the writer should check whether it really is in the book named, the proposal is declined. “No, what’s the point? What is certain is that that picture is still associated with this book, and that the feeling it gave me has remained intact….” Such is the kind of truth to be expected in these cases. No doubt similar arguments might be advanced on behalf of Nabokov; there remains the difference that Mme. Sarraute continually raises such questions, continually reflects on what she is doing while she is doing it.

Nathalie Sarraute, now eighty-four years old, has long been preoccupied with the truth of written representations, and with psychological realism. It is forty-five years since Tropismes first appeared, and that book, with its experimental techniques for exploring such matters, is, as she herself remarks, the foundation of all she has written since. Her more abstract meditations upon them, published as The Age of Suspicion, have been available for nearly thirty years.

Tropism is a phenomenon associated with certain plants that grow, or bend, in response to the stimulus of light. Sarraute takes the stimulus to be everyday conversation; underneath it occur the private unspoken movements of reaction and response. This is the world of what she calls sous-conversation, “hidden beneath these utterly banal words and actions.” (This account underrates the complexity of the idea; it has often been more fully expounded, and best, perhaps, in Stephen Heath’s admirable book The Nouveau Roman, published in 1972.) What matters is not what is said, but the unspoken stir of activity beneath, the restoration of a protective banality, and then again disturbance, activity.

Novels written on this plan have no use for ordinary notions of character, which depend on a measure of conformity with stereotypes and assume the possibility of drawing firm psychological outlines. All such firmness is banished, and the character is no longer a meeting ground for author and reader, each with similar preconceived ideas; instead it is the very point at which they converge “in mutual distrust.” We know too much, and can believe in the truth only of that which defies stereotype and possesses no clear outline.

The old style of character, Sarraute wrote in The Age of Suspicion, made one think of “the mushy consistency and general insipidness of overchewed food”; the new one must somehow be fluid and evasive in an entirely different way. Even Proust is not quite adequate as a model, for whenever there occurs in his work a gap between conversation and sub-conversation he intervenes to fill it with comment or explanation instead of leaving the task to the reader. The need is to develop a technique (it will of course depend almost entirely on dialogue) by means of which the reader may be plunged into the stream of sub-conversation and given the illusion of repeating its dramas “without losing that element of indetermination, of opacity and mystery that one’s own actions always have for the one who lives them.”

Such, for Nathalie Sarraute, is to be the manner of writing narrative in this self-reflexive, suspicious age. A writer holding these views is likely to approach the project of childhood reminiscence with caution, perhaps with trepidation. Hence the presence of the alter ego already mentioned. She is there at the beginning of the book.

Then you really are going to do that? “Evoke your childhood memories”…How these words embarrass you, you don’t like them. But you have to admit that they are the only appropriate words. You want to “evoke your memories”…there’s no getting away from it, that’s what it is.

—Yes, I can’t help it, it tempts me, I don’t know why…

—It could be…mightn’t it be…we sometimes don’t realize…it could be that your forces are declining….

Will not this attempt require her to abandon the element in which she has done her best work, work in which “everything…fluctuates, alters, escapes…evades you…”? Isn’t she afraid that she may be handling something that “isn’t trembling,” that “has become fixed once and for all”? No, she replies; it’s still “quivering.”

As you would expect, the book quivers, trembles, and shuns whatever is fixed in advance, part of the official record. For example, a recurring theme in traditional accounts is a childhood experience of bliss, of total belonging and identity with the world.

Eternity was manifest in the light of day, and something infinite behind everything appeared, which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine, and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it….

So Traherne. In The Prelude Wordsworth faced the problem of installing a good many such moments—when he saw blessings spread around him like a sea—with a more continuous narrative of the growth of a poet’s mind. And for him the relation of such moments, appareled in celestial light, with adult experience was harder to explain, especially since some “spots of time” seem memorable as much because of a mysterious charge of anguish or terror as of anything that could simply be called happiness: only a woman with a pitcher on her head, a mountain peak full of menace.

The stereotype, however, is rather the paradisiacal vision, the moment of total belonging, as when Nabokov, remembering an uncle reading, sees again his schoolroom reflected in a mirror above the man’s head:

A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth, pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

This seems straightforward, but the tense is, cautiously, the present, and the rhetoric is appropriate to that. Sarraute has to deal with an experience of this kind, and one would expect some difference of approach. She was sitting in the Luxembourg gardens and either her father or her stepmother had been reading her a fairy tale, perhaps from Hans Andersen.

…I was looking at the blossom on the espaliers along the little pink brick wall, the trees in bloom, the sparkling green lawn strewn with pink and white petaled daisies, the sky, of course, was blue, and the air seemed to be gently vibrating…and at that moment, it happened…something unique…something that will never again happen in that way, a sensation of such violence that, even now, after so much time has elapsed, when it comes back to me, faded and partially obliterated, I feel…but what? what word can pin it down? not the all-encompassing word: “happiness,” which is the first that comes to mind, no, not that…”felicity,” “exaltation,” are too ugly, they mustn’t touch it…and “ecstasy”…at this word, everything in it recoils…”Joy,” yes, perhaps…this modest, very simple little word may alight on it with no great danger…but it cannot gather up what fills me, brims over in me, disperses, dissolves, melts into the pink bricks, the blossom-covered espaliers, the lawn, the pink and white petals, the air vibrating with barely perceptible tremors, with waves…waves of life, quite simply life, what other word?…of life in its pure state, no lurking menace, no mixture, it suddenly attains the greatest intensity it can ever attain…never again that kind of intensity, for no reason, just because it is there, because I am inside it, inside the little pink wall, the flowers on the espaliers, on the trees, the lawn, the vibrating air…I am inside them with nothing else, nothing that does not belong to them, nothing that belongs to me.

I quote at length, partly to give some idea of the excellence of the translation, partly to illustrate the blend of positive assertion and hesitation, withdrawal, quite different from Nabokov’s sturdy affirmations and very conscious of itself as a researched piece of writing. It suggests strongly enough the affinity between the unique pulsations of the recollected experience and the tremulous movement of the prose; but it remembers also that pure fiction might do just the same things. “The sky, of course, was blue,” because it had to be.

We learn later that when required at school to write an essay called “My First Sorrow,” Nathalie invented a bit of autobiography. Writing it, she found that the words guided her choice of incident. At first she set the story in springtime, but, needing a pale sun and gold and purple foliage, switched it to autumn. Seventy years later that “of course” (bien sûr) recapitulates what she discovered about autobiography as a schoolgirl.

She inserts into the present narrative some reminders of what it might be like to have a “model childhood.” English girls, the daughters of parsons and schoolmasters, come to teach her English and form a sharp contrast with the cosmopolitan child who already knew French and German as well as her native Russian. They were “fresh blown from their country childhoods…which could only have been what ‘real’ childhoods are, lived in insouciance, in security.” Such girls were amazed and wretched in the household dominated by Sarraute’s passionate and erratic stepmother, but they had happy memories. Sometimes it occurs to Sarraute that she, too, had some: for instance, her mother reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin to her when she was sick. But counter-memories intervene; weren’t there signs that her mother was all too anxious to stop reading and get away? The alter ego comments: “This is the end of the ‘happy memories’ which you had such scruples about…they conformed too closely to the model…. Yes…it didn’t take long for them to regain the privilege of conforming to nothing but themselves….”

There was perhaps not much danger of this childhood conforming too closely to models. The details that emerge (with an appropriate lack of definition) from Sarraute’s text are of a childhood spent in Russia and Paris—a history of comfortable exile among émigrés with their revolutionary deeds behind them. The principal persons are seen with the double vision of child and adult: a mother evidently selfish and careless, and her amiable second husband; an adored father and an unpredictable and sometimes wantonly cruel stepmother (beware the Cinderella stereotype), who prefers her own child to Nathalie. It is the evidence of desertions and rejections great and small that comes before adult consciousness. And the child is also something of a foreigner; Jewish, too, though that only comes to be important much later. There are glimpses of St. Petersburg, but mostly of the streets and parks of Paris, and its schools. The story stops on the threshold of the lycée.

Yet all this is only a frame. The book deals mostly in discontinuous moments, hesitantly remembered and qualified. The child is represented as mother to the woman in one respect above all, her obsession with words. When her step-mother, with astonishing cruelty, tells her she has been abandoned, she does so not in French but in the relative ferocity of Russian: Tyebya podbrossili, with its undertones of furtive force quite absent from the French t’a abandonnée. And the writer maintains, against the protest of the alter ego, that she sensed “all the hidden riches” of the Russian words. Needs are converted into words; the young child, seizing dressmaker’s scissors, wishes to rip the silk of a settee: Ich werde es zerreissen, “I’m going to slash it.” Did she know German that well? No matter, “the word zerreissen has a hissing, ferocious sound….” We may reflect that this is what the writer later wishes to do to “conversation”—to slash it so that its interior spills out (so she expresses the process in Les Fruits d’or).

The book is much concerned with certain obsessions. The child makes a great nuisance of herself by literal obedience to her mother’s requirement that she chew each mouthful of food until it has the consistency of soup (but which has priority, this memory or the passage quoted above from The Age of Suspicion?). She is also, though quietly, concerned with cruelty and violence. Her half sister tears her teddy bear to pieces. She herself has what she calls “ideas.” These are uncontrollable desires, the need to say what can only cause trouble and damage. Having decided that her mother is less beautiful than a certain doll, she is obliged to tell her so, and must then bear the guilt of being the only child that does not love its mother.

Or she is visited by the idea that her mother’s skin is like a monkey’s, imagining, before she communicates this news, various kind or dismissive replies her mother might be expected to make, but didn’t. Having heard her mother describe her stepmother as stupid, she is bound sooner or later to let the stepmother know this. She asks the stepmother quite casually, “Do you hate me?” and again gets not the expected reply but “How can anyone hate a child?” which she doesn’t find comforting as she contemplates a future in which she will qualify to be hated.

There is certainly a sense in which this kind of writing thrives on the reader’s frustrations, resisting attempts to bring it into conformity with inherited notions of what such a narrative ought to be like. And yet it can’t quite defeat us; it isn’t strange enough for that. The intrusive voice I called the alter ego is not a wholly unfamiliar device, and is fully complicit with the voice of the narrator. It registers objections, but they are nearly always ignored so that one gets the story as it were straight, as well as complicated by gestures of ironical questioning or dissent. It puts the conventional in question but without obscuring it.

So if what we really want, in an old-fashioned way, is an autobiography that says something positive about its writer, we can have it in reasonable measure. Here is a childhood that has what might pass for a recognizable pattern. Here is a book recognizably in the familiar hand of Nathalie Sarraute. If it doesn’t itself explore the biographical and psychological implications of its story, it still isn’t the kind of book that can stop us from trying to do so if we wish. The author seems to be saying that she has quite enough to do in controlling the language, in insuring that the match between word and imagined or recollected event is free of falsity or, worse, banality. This really is the New Autobiography; but if you choose you can without too much difficulty treat it as quite like the older kind.

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