Nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute; drawing by David Levine

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 the father out of the money he had wanted to save from the income tax collector; even the hero of the later work, The Planetarium, personified ambition (the plot is a familiar one describing his ruthless “rise in social space”).

Sarraute has cracked open the “smooth and hard” surface of these traditional characters (“nothing but well-made dolls”) in order to discover the endless vibrations of moods and sentiments which, though hardly perceptible in the macrocosm of the outward world, are like the tremors of a never-ending series of earthquakes in the microcosm of the self. This inner life—what she calls “the psychological”—is no less hidden from “the surface world” of appearances than the physiological life process that goes on in the inner organs beneath the skin of bodily appearance. Neither shows itself of its own accord. And just as the physiological process announces itself naturally only through the symptoms of a disease (the tiny pimple, to use her own image, which is the sign of the plague), but needs a special instrument—the surgical knife or X rays—to become visible, so these psychological movements cause the outbreak of symptoms only in case of great disaster and need the novelist’s magnifying lenses of suspicion to be explored. To choose the intimacy of family life, this “semidarkness” behind closed curtains with its Strindbergian overtones, as a laboratory for this kind of psychological vivi-section, instead of the couch, was a sheer stroke of genius, for here “the fluctuating frontier that [ordinarily] separates conversation from sub-conversation” breaks down most frequently so that the inner life of the self can explode onto the surface in what is commonly called “scenes.” No doubt these scenes are the only distraction in the infinite boredom of a world entirely bent upon itself, and yet they also constitute the life-beat of a hell in which we are condemned to going “eternally round and round,” where all appearances are penetrated but no firm ground is ever reached. Behind the lies and the pretenses, there is nothing but the vibrations of an ever-present irritation—a “chaos in which a thousand possibilities clash,” a morass where every step makes you sink deeper into perdition.


Nathalie Sarraute had become a master of this tumultuous, explosive inner life of an “all-powerful I” before she began her second series of novels, The Planetarium (1959) and The Golden Fruits (1963), which, despite similarity of technique and style, belong to a different genre. In her essays, written during the first period and published in 1956, as well as in interviews and in numerous passages in the novels themselves, she has explained her intentions with great lucidity, and the reviewer finds it tempting indeed to echo her own insights. She thus has spoken with great abandon of the “psychological movements” which “constitute, in fact, the principal element of my research”; she also has mentioned, though with more restraint, her hope to break through to some domain of the authentically real, not Goethe’s “the beautiful, the good, the true,” but just some tiny, undiluted, undistorted factual matter. Perhaps it will turn out to be “nothing, or almost nothing,”—“the first blade of grass…a crocus not yet open…a child’s hand nestling in the hollow of my own.” But “believe me, that’s all that counts.” Finally, she quotes a famous line from The Brothers Karamazov, which could well be placed as a motto over her whole work: “‘Master, what must I do to gain eternal life?’ The Staretz comes a little nearer: ‘Above all, do not lie to yourself.”‘ (In this, as in other respects, she has more in common with Mary McCarthy than with almost any other living writer.)

In an author who has gone to such lengths to explain what she is doing, conspicuous elements she has not mentioned may be all the more noteworthy. First, there is the entirely negative character of her discoveries, which Sartre found so striking. Nothing in either her method or subject matter explains the catastrophic nature of the inner life, the complete or almost complete absence of love, generosity, magnanimity, and the like in her work. Every word, if it is not meant to deceive, is a “weapon,” all thoughts are “assembled like a large and powerful army behind its banners…about to roll forward.” The imagery of warfare is all-pervasive. Even in Kafka, as she herself has noted—let alone in Dostoevsky or in Proust and Joyce, the earlier masters of the inner monologue—there are still these “moments of sincerity, these states of grace,” which are absent from her own work. There is, second, and more surprisingly, the fact that she has never elaborated on her enormously effective use of the “they”—what “they say,” the commonplace, the cliché, the merely idiomatic turn of the phrase—emphasized by many of her reviewers and admirers. “They” made their first appearance in the Portrait, moved into the center of the plot in The Planetarium, and become the “hero” of The Golden Fruits.

In the Portrait—which like a Greek tragedy has three main characters: Father, Daughter, and Watcher, the old Messenger in new disguise, who tells the story—“they” form the chorus. Both Father and Daughter are surrounded and supported by a “protective cohort” from the outside world, the father by his “old cronies” whom he meets regularly in a tavern, the daughter by the ceaselessly gossiping elderly women in the doorways of the big apartment houses, who had gathered around her ever since she lay in the cradle, “wagging their heads…like the wicked godmothers in fairy tales.” Singing out their ageless platitudes, the choruses support the main figures (“children never show any gratitude, believe me”) and they form a “firm rampart” of ordinariness behind the fighting line to which the characters betake themselves to regain “density, and weight, steadiness,” and to become “somebodies” again. And peace comes when the daughter, having finally found a commonplace husband, looks forward to joining the chorus: “Piously, I shall mingle my voice with theirs.”

This relationship between “I” and “They” is sometimes reversed in the later novels. In both The Planetarium and The Golden Fruits “they” often appear as the incarnation of the enemy, the cause of all disasters suffered by the “I”—at the first moment of inattention, “they” will come and “apprehend, snatch” you without pity, “like dogs that smell in every corner to discover the prey they’re going to carry away between their teeth and which, in a little while, they will lay, all warm and quivering, at the feet” of whomever they happen to recognize as their master at that particular moment.


There is finally the “metamorphosis,” the moment of truth, around which each novel is centered, as Greek tragedy is centered around the moment of recognition. This is what gives Nathalie Sarraute’s writing a dramatic quality which is, I think, unique in contemporary fiction. (She probably borrowed the word from Kafka’s famous story—in the Portrait she even uses the original image: Father and Daughter confront each other like “two giant insects, two enormous dung beetles.”) The metamorphosis occurs in the rare moments when “sub-conversation” and “sub-conversation” confront each other, that is, at the moment of descent from the daylight world of seeming down to “the bottom of a well” where naked, “clasped to each other,” slipping and fighting in a nether world, as private and incommunicable as the world of dreams and nightmares, the characters meet in a murderous intimacy that will conceal nothing.

In their ferocious pursuit of truth (this is how you are, do not lie to yourself) the first two novels leave the reader with Strindberg’s compassion for the whole species: “Oh, for the pity of men.” The family after all is the most natural human community, and what is revealed in its setting seems to indicate something about “human nature.” The setting of the two later novels is Society, which is “artificial” in comparison to the family and even more artificial in this case as it is the society of the literary clique. (The Planetarium “is not the real sky but an artificial sky,” as Mme. Sarraute explained in an interview with François Bondy in Der Monat, December 1963.) Strangely enough, the result of the different settings is that on the one hand conversation and sub-conversation are more closely interrelated, and, on the other, everything which has been so desperately sad, almost tragic, in the earlier work now turns into sheer, hilarious comedy. Here, in the sphere of the social, there is “nothing sacred…. No holy places. No taboos,” that can be violated; here “we are all the same, all human beings…all alike” and do not need any intimacy to call each other’s bluff; every distinction or even mere difference, “that’s an accident, a curious excrescence, that’s a sickness,” perhaps even “a little miracle” if it turns out to materialize into an object, some work of art “that can’t be explained…but as for the rest, what a resemblance.” (From The Golden Fruits.)

The Planetarium still retains a number of “characters,” taken from the family—father, aunt, and in-laws—who are by no means “all alike,” and it has two main characters, Julien Sorel and Mme. de Rênal in modern disguise: the young ambitieux has become an ordinary social climber, “a little scoundrel…When he wants something, nothing can stop him, there’s nothing he wouldn’t do,” and the femme passionée of good society has become a literary celebrity. They have no affair, there is no passion left in this society; they are not true protagonists, but more like members of a chorus that has lost its protagonist, the almost accidentally chosen figures of the “they.”

The story tells how the newly-wed couple-on-the-make obtain the apartment of the young man’s aunt (they have an apartment to live in, but they need a new one “to entertain”), who to her own great grief had installed in it a brand-new door in “bad taste,” and most of the story’s complexities turn about furniture and the unfortunate door. The metamorphosis takes place near the end of the book and, delightfully, concerns the same door: The young man takes the celebrity around for whom he had gone to all the trouble. He is in agony because of the door, but he is saved: While the celebrity is looking around, “in one second, the most amazing, the most marvelous metamorphosis takes place. As though touched by a fairy wand, the door which, as soon as he had set eyes on it, had been surrounded by the thin papier-maché walls, the hideous cement of suburban houses…reverts to its original aspect, when, resplendent with life, it had appeared framed in the walls of an old convent cloister.” Alas, the poor door is not permitted to remain for long in its state of refound grace; there is another embarrassing object in the apartment, a Gothic virgin marred on one side by a restored arm, and the celebrity, oh horror, does not detect it: she “stares fixedly at the shoulder, the arm, she swallows them stolidly, her strong stomach digests them easily, her eyes maintain the calm, indifferent impression of a cow’s eyes.” This is the moment of truth when everything comes apart in “a breach, a sudden cleavage:” she loses her power to perform miracles and back comes “the oval door…floating, uncertain, suspended in limbo…massive old convent door or that of a cheap bungalow…” to haunt him forever after.

This is one of the most exquisitely funny passages that I know in contemporary literature: it is of course the comedy of our American “other-directedness” or of the “inauthentic” in French parlance. But how feeble and pedantic these words sound compared to the miserably grotesque reality of the thing itself! What makes it so comical is that it all takes place in the milieu of the presumably “inner-directed” élite of “good taste” and refinement, among intellectuals boasting of the highest standards, who pretend to care about nothing, certainly talk about nothing but things of the highest spiritual order. When asked to portray themselves they appear as “highly sensitive and frail beings at odds with a dark and hostile world,” as the New York Times Book Review, as though asked to compound the fraud that The Planetarium exposes, said in high praise. But this is perhaps as it must be, for the truth of the matter is that The Planetarium and The Golden Fruits taken together constitute the severest indictment ever meted out to the “intellectuals.” It is as though Sarraute said: Le Trahison des Clercs? Don’t make me laugh. What have these creatures got that they could betray to begin with?

The comedy is at its purest in The Golden Fruits. Here, “they” are among themselves, undisturbed by any “characters” from outside the literary clique. The book tells the story of another book, a novel just published and called “The Golden Fruits,” from its initial spectacular success to its quiet downfall into oblivion, and it ends with an outlook into the book’s uncertain future. (Its first reception in France, I am told, was not enthusiastic, perhaps because the reviewers asked themselves how they could possibly consider a work in which every phrase, every turn of smart or idiotic praise or blame has been anticipated and revealed as mere talk.) We never learn anything about the book itself—the author is mentioned because he belongs to the literary clique—for this is the story of Everybook that has the misfortune to fall into the hands of the literate Everybody, whose whispers and shouts last until Everything has been said.

And indeed everybody is present: The critic; the maître: and the admiring ladies; “the culprit” who once had “fallen from grace” by offending impeccable taste, but has been “disinfected long ago”; the husband who is suspected of not having discovered “The Golden Fruits” by himself, but he has, he has, says his wife; the provincial who far from “them” had found the novel full of platitudes (but it was done “on purpose,” and he is convinced); the scholars (“heads heavy with learning”) who, having grouped the dead “according to category, lesser, average, great,” find a place for the newes!arrival; even the doubter, “mad, exalted creature who goes about the world, barefooted and in rags” disturbing its peace; even “the foreigner, the pariah” (but “you are one of us,” there “can be no question of excluding you”). As they exhaust all aspects, all arguments and outdo each other with superlatives until they all know: “There will be those who came before and those who came after ‘The Golden Fruits’.” There occurs in each one of them this mysterious, delicious process of being “emptied of himself—an empty recipient that will be entirely filled with what they are going to put into it.”

And who are “they”? Each one of them is the same “all-powerful I” whose catastrophic inner life was the subject-matter of the earlier novels. Each one of them has come out of hell and is afraid of being returned there, remembering only too well how it was when he was still alone, a “poor devil, obscure little fellow, unknown author,” always trying to be admitted and invariably beaten down. What would have happened to him had he not clung fast to “another image [of himself]…with gigantic proportions, more and more enormous, spreading out on every side”? This is why “they” are all alike and have found in each other’s company the medium in which “the weakest vibration is communicated immediately,” and “becomes amplified in ever-increasing waves.” This kind of society is the macrocosm of the “I,” the “I” writ large. Or, perhaps, it is the other way round and the “psychological” inner life, whose trembling fluctuations Sarraute explored, is only the “inner” life of those egomaniacs who, seemingly “outerdirected,” are in fact interested in no one and nothing but themselves. Nothing at any rate resembles more closely the disastrous instability of teeming and swarming emotions—from which all loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness must be absent by definition—than the ups and downs, the tidal waves of fashionable taste by which “they” are thrown hither and thither.

The tide, to be sure, turns, its rise is followed by its fall, and everything quickly crumbles away “you never know exactly how.” All you know is that from one day to the other everything is in reverse—we hear the same people, the same critic, the same ever-loving wife whose husband now “from the beginning was never taken in,” and all the rest of “them,” until finally the book is given the coup de grâce—“You’re still with…’The Golden Fruits’?” “They,” to be sure, are not disturbed by this volte-face, they remain in the same medium, the same company, they are hardly aware of what happened. And should any one of them ever be beset by doubts, he will be told to evoke History, the goddess of change, by which “they [are] borne along…as by a superb ocean liner.”

This is comedy and like all good comedy concerned with something deadly serious. The falsity of the intellectual “they” is particularly painful, because it touches one of the most delicate and, at the same time, indispensable elements of human relationships, the element of common taste for which indeed “no criterion of values” exists. Taste decides not only about how the world should look, it also determines the “elective affinities” of those who belong together in it. The “secret signs” by which we recognize each other, what else do they say but, “We are brothers, aren’t we…I offer you this holy bread. I welcome you to my table.” This feeling of natural kinship in the midst of a world, to which we all come as strangers, is monstrously distorted in the society of the “refined” who have made passwords and talismans, means of social organization, out of a common world of objects. But have they really succeeded in ruining it? Shortly before the end, Nathalie Sarraute turns from the “they” and the “I” to the “we,” the old We of author and reader. It is the reader who speaks: “We are so frail and they so strong. Or perhaps…we, you and I, are the stronger, even now.”

This Issue

March 5, 1964