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…

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