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 …

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