“Ich werde es zerreissen”—“I’m going to slash it.” So asserted the five- or six-year-old future novelist Nathalie Sarraute to her Swiss governess as she held a pair of scissors above a stuffed armchair. The governess protested. The future novelist held firm:
“Yes, I’m going to do it”…There now, I’m freeing myself, excitement and exaltation impel my arm, I plunge the point of the scissors in with all my strength, the silk gives, tears, I slash the back of the settee from top to bottom, and I look at what comes out of it…something flabby, greyish, is escaping from the slit.
Sarraute recalls this youthful outburst in her memoir, Childhood, published in 1983 when she was eighty-three. The anecdote captures the fierce curiosity and violent, even sensual impulse for evisceration, for radical dismantling of the domestic, that drive much of her work. Like other practitioners of the nouveau roman, Sarraute wanted to destroy the stuffy furniture of centuries past and replace it with a sleek midcentury-modern version. Out, too, went other vestiges of the past: plot, setting, character development, names, physical descriptions. In her essay “The Age of Suspicion” (1950) Sarraute argued that fiction must evolve and reject the omniscient narrators of nineteenth-century novels and their dialogue of “he said” and “she said.” Instead she was interested in identity liberated from biography, in capturing a person’s essence, in the emotional charge in the air before the scissors plunged into the upholstery. This is what makes her work so intriguing—and so utterly alien today, when the dominant cultural mode is to prioritize and valorize background, group membership, and personal history as the primary means of defining identity.
A series of impressions structured as a dialogue between the young writer and her double, Childhood is Sarraute’s third-to-last book and a kind of bookend to her first and arguably most influential, Tropisms (1939). In twenty-four short vignettes presented over fifty-two postcard-sized pages, Tropisms is a series of observed moments with no plot, in which a mysterious, ever-changing narrator observes and describes the fleeting emotions and perceptions of nameless characters. Sarraute’s unique approach to narrative in Tropisms caught the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre, who told her that “everything you write has charm—and each time you have someone speak, it’s natural and accurate.” It was the start of a decades-long correspondence and at times turbulent friendship, and he went on to champion her work. (“The Age of Suspicion” originally appeared in Les Temps modernes, the preeminent intellectual magazine of its time, founded by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.)
As we learn from Ann Jefferson’s definitive biography, Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between, Sarraute’s life spanned the entire twentieth century. Born in 1900, she died, lucid, in 1999. Although her star has decidedly faded over the years, she had a prominent place in French letters, publishing thirteen works of fiction, six plays, and four books of literary criticism. She was friends—or frenemies—with many luminaries of the day, including Beauvoir, who came to dislike her, and Samuel Beckett, whom she and her family hosted for a fraught period during World War II. Her friends Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt both wrote glowing reviews of her work in these pages. (Sarraute later fell out with McCarthy and Arendt after accusing them of not preventing the Review from publishing a negative piece on one of her novels in 1973.) Susan Sontag championed Sarraute in a 1963 essay collected in Against Interpretation, saying that she admired her efforts to free the novel from old conventions, although later in life she revised her view of Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet: “I liked their essays and the ideas they had about fiction much better than the fiction that they themselves were writing.”
Sarraute had what Jefferson calls a particularly intense, “exaggeratedly jokey but nonetheless keen rivalry” with Marguerite Duras, although they reconciled toward the end of Duras’s life in 1996. The two writers had sharp differences over an issue that has only increased in urgency and intensity over the years: whether writing by women should draw on or even acknowledge biographical facts. Duras said yes and Sarraute decidedly no, privately dismissing Duras’s work as “trashy.” While Duras’s work deals with the body and feelings as much as the mind, Sarraute’s writing is intensely cerebral. In the history of literary taste, Duras and her followers have prevailed. Nevertheless, Sarraute remains a significant figure on the path from Virginia Woolf’s modernism through postwar French existentialism. Revealingly, the two works that inspired her to become a writer, and that she felt she could have written herself, were Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, with its half-German, half-Italian protagonist caught between worlds, and André Gide’s Marshlands, his delightful novella and influential early metafiction about a writer in Paris struggling to write a novel called Marshlands.
When she published Tropisms, Sarraute was a thirty-nine-year-old mother of three daughters, living in Paris’s prosperous, bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement with her husband, Raymond Sarraute, a lawyer from a Catholic family whose father had socialist leanings and whose mother was of Russian Jewish origins. The two had met when they were both law students. (She worked as a lawyer only briefly and unenthusiastically.) Sarraute’s approach is the antithesis of autobiographical, but Tropisms can nevertheless be read as a withering critique of the tedium and vacuousness of so many middle-class women’s lives:
In the afternoon they went out together, led the life that women lead. And what an extraordinary life it was! They went to “tearooms,” ate cakes, which they picked out daintily, in a slightly greedy manner: chocolate éclairs, “babas,” and tarts…. There was a current of excitement and bustle about them, a slight disquiet filled with joy, the memory of a difficult choice, concerning which they were still not certain (would it go with the blue and gray outfit? Why of course, it would be perfect), the prospect of this metamorphosis, of this sudden enhancement of their personality, of this glamor. They, they, they, they, always they, voracious, chirping, dainty. Their faces seemed to be stiff with a sort of inner tension, their indifferent eyes skimmed lightly over the aspect, the mask of things, weighed it for a short second (was it pretty or ugly?) then let it drop.
Sarraute called these moments “tropisms.” “I gave them this name because of their spontaneous, irresistible, instinctive nature, similar to that of the movements made by certain living organisms under the influence of outside stimuli, such as light or heat,” she wrote in a preface to a later edition of the book. “These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations.” Beyond words, beyond even an inner monologue, they are like little electric charges that “develop and pass through us very rapidly in the form of frequently very sharp, brief sensations, without our perceiving clearly what they are.” To capture them, she wrote, she broke them up and spread them out like distinct images in “a slow-motion film.”
Jefferson, a professor emerita at Oxford, is an eminent Sarraute scholar who first met the writer as a graduate student in the early 1970s and coedited her Oeuvres complètes in the 1996 Pléiade edition. She sees her biography as a companion volume to her Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference (2004), in which she sums up Sarraute’s approach:
In repudiating character as the vehicle for exploring psychological truth, Sarraute is not just condemning an outworn fictional convention. She is shifting the centre of gravity of the novel’s concerns: rejecting physical manifestations of human existence in favour of the disembodied inwardness of psychology, and renouncing individual differences for the universal sameness of the tropism. Disembodied states of consciousness rather than flesh and blood “characters” are the main concern of her fiction; and since her aim is exclusively to track the elusive movements of the tropism as it darts along the frontiers of consciousness, individual identities with their concomitant physical differences become totally irrelevant to her enterprise.
What would make a writer renounce individual differences for universal sameness? Was it an intellectual exercise? A highly elaborate survival mechanism? A blind belief in French universalism? Although you would hardly deduce it from Sarraute’s work, which is elliptical, high-concept, and often impenetrable, she traveled a long way, through many countries, languages, and political traumas, to become a French writer. Jefferson has done extraordinary research into her family origins—the kind of biographical material Sarraute would have wanted suppressed in her lifetime. Jefferson’s preface to the biography reads like something of an apology:
Daughter of émigré Russian Jews, Nathalie Sarraute knew only too well how labels that fix an identity—whether foreign, Jewish, or female—can be used to segregate and exclude. For all these reasons, biography was bound to appear as a negation of her own experience and the convictions that underpinned her writing.
Sarraute was born Natacha Tserniak in tsarist Russia to assimilated, upwardly mobile Jewish parents who spoke Russian and French, not Yiddish. Her father, Ilya, a loving figure of stability in her life, was a chemist who owned a dye factory in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, northeast of Moscow, thanks to a permit that allowed him to live outside the Pale of Settlement to which Jews were then restricted. This was an industrial area that saw some of the first workers’ strikes that eventually led to the Russian Revolution. Living in Paris years later, Ilya played chess with Lenin and Trotsky in the Café du Lion.
Her mother, Polina, was born in what is now Ukraine. Something of a diva, she was an aspiring writer who eventually published melodramatic novels in Russian. She was also a great reader of Flaubert, about whom Sarraute later wrote a book of criticism. Like Emma Bovary, Polina was bored in the provinces. Remarkably, Jefferson discovered that she had originally given Nathalie the name Emma, presumably after Flaubert’s heroine.
Before Nathalie was born, the couple had lost a daughter to scarlet fever at age three, a shock from which the turbulent marriage never recovered. They divorced when Nathalie was almost two, at Polina’s instigation. At age eight she was shipped off on a solo train journey from Russia to Paris, where her father was living with the woman who became his second wife. Polina, meanwhile, took up with a Russian historian some thirteen years her junior, and the young girl bounced around between her parents’ households in St. Petersburg and Paris in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. Childhood is unique among Sarraute’s work in that it evokes those years—albeit in outline form, from the point of view of a child. Jefferson’s biography completes the picture, capturing the Nabokovian milieu of Russian émigrés to Western Europe in which she was raised.
Sarraute’s life was deeply marked by exclusion on the basis of religion. She arrived in France as a child at a time when anti-Jewish pogroms were raging across Russia, and she was removed from the Paris bar in late 1940 because she was Jewish (though she had long since given up practicing law). She and her father registered as Jewish in October 1940, just after Vichy’s Statut des Juifs “changed the definition of Jewishness from religious to racial criteria.” (Her husband’s Jewish origins were easier to obscure.) This humiliation came only fifteen years after Sarraute had become a French citizen. Today she is included in French government brochures as an example of illustrious foreigners who gained French nationality.
She survived the war by living with gentile friends and posing as the tutor to her three daughters under the suggestive assumed name Nicole Sauvage. To protect her husband, she temporarily divorced him so he would no longer be married to a Jew. A French state functionary who had forged her papers in Janvry, the small town southwest of Paris where she was hiding, was shot by police charged with tracking “internal enemies.” During the occupation, Sarraute briefly hosted Beckett and his then-companion and later wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, in the house in Janvry. They were on the run after his Resistance group, Réseau Gloria, had been ratted out. Sarraute and Beckett took a ferocious dislike to each other. Sarraute, who had moved two of her daughters out of their room to lend it to the couple, found him ungrateful and uninterested in her writing. (At that point, her only published work was Tropisms.) He walked into her kitchen every morning holding his chamber pot.
Eventually Sarraute returned with her daughters to Paris, a perilous journey. Her husband went on to write several books about anti-Jewish Vichy laws and the legal status of immigrants in France, and also served as secretary of the French Committee for the Defense of Immigrants. Throughout her life Sarraute, like many Jews in France of her generation, seemed to take the Sartre line that a Jew is someone who is defined a Jew by someone else, and she distanced herself from her Jewish heritage, finding it more a source of pain than of strength. In her last years, however, she began to read the Old Testament and became interested in her family’s origins in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. She “was now willing to accept that Jewishness was more than the product of anti-Semitism, and to consider that there existed an irreducible, positive Jewish identity,” Jefferson writes.
I would like to know more of what Sarraute thought about France’s betrayal of its Jews, about the death of her father, and about many other events of her life, but Jefferson’s biography, although full of excellent exposition and exhaustive research, is almost entirely without insight into or access to its subject’s interiority. During her lifetime Sarraute was fiercely protective and controlling of her image; and to a fault, and sometimes to the detriment of the book, Jefferson is respectful of her insistence that a writer’s work should stand alone, unencumbered by biography. She notes that some of Sarraute’s works include characters who act like informants or dissemble about their wartime lives, but that nothing is flagged as autobiographical: “Nathalie’s lived experience is once again incidental to the exploration of a deeper psychological reality.”
Although Sarraute’s family gave Jefferson access to her library and engagement diaries after her death, she was not a natural letter writer, and Jefferson also lacked access to a traditional gold mine for biographers, her manuscripts, which at Sarraute’s request are sealed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France until 2036. Jefferson writes that Gallimard, the esteemed French publishing house that now controls the estate, obliged her in her edition of the Oeuvres complètes to delete all mention of Sarraute’s activities in May 1968 from her account of the critical reception of Sarraute’s novel Between Life and Death (1968). Sarraute had been involved in opposition to the Vietnam War and participated in the events of May 1968, signing letters, supporting boycotts, and joining the peaceful occupation of a building that housed the Society of Writers. “She never spoke about her participation in May 68 and discouraged others from doing so,” Jefferson writes. “Her reticence was no doubt designed to deflect any political interpretation of her writing, whose revolutionary ambitions lay entirely in the literary domain.”
Instead of interiority, Jefferson’s biography recounts the days of Sarraute’s life in detail—biography as a series of facts. We learn that she didn’t cook or clean. She never spoke Russian with her children, and when they were small the household had a nanny, a maid, and a cleaner. Her husband typed her handwritten manuscripts for her. She took calls before 9 AM, then liked to write in a neighborhood café where Arabic, a language she did not understand, was spoken in the background. She smoked but never inhaled. She always kept her hair short, let it go gray, and hated being photographed. She received visitors around 5 PM for afternoon tea, and in her later years whiskey and Perrier. Toward the end of her life, she kept a bottle of Russian vodka under the bed and would drink from it in the middle of the night. (There is a word for this particular way of drinking—and Jefferson doesn’t use it.)
Sarraute was prone to anxiety and obsession. She suffered a debilitating depression after the birth of her first daughter, Claude, in 1927, and spent several weeks alone in a Swiss sanatorium where she was treated with rest and not sent home until she had put on weight. She never talked about the episode, and Jefferson has pieced it together from correspondence. Facing distress some six years before that, Sarraute, most likely at the urging of her father, had sessions with Pierre Janet, then France’s leading clinical psychologist. She later told Jefferson that Janet had placed a hand on her breast at the end of each consultation, a violation that contributed to her scorn for the profession. She was also skeptical of Freud and Lacan and said she would never have become a writer if she’d entered psychoanalysis.
Nevertheless Janet, and especially his writings on the subconscious, had a significant influence on her, and she had many of his books in her library. Jefferson also finds echoes of Janet in Sarraute’s Portrait of an Unknown Man (1948), a kind of avant-garde detective novel whose narrator consults a specialist for “ambivalence” and describes himself as a “conducting rod” for all currents in the atmosphere—a stance that Jefferson speculates is autobiographical.
Sartre wrote the preface to Portrait of an Unknown Man, calling it a parody of the quest novel in which a pseudodetective takes an interest in finding out about the lives of a father and daughter:
Nathalie Sarraute has a horror of the tricks of the novelist, even though they may absolutely be necessary. Is he “with,” “behind” or “outside” his characters?… She takes her characters neither from within nor from without, for the reason that we are, both for ourselves and for others, entirely within and without at the same time.
Sartre and Sarraute remained on good terms throughout her life, although he was later critical of “the absence of any explicit social content,” as Jefferson puts it, in her work.
Sarraute’s rapport with Beauvoir, however, was far more conflicted. They fell out after Sarraute fictionalized Beauvoir in her novel The Planetarium (1959), about a young man with literary ambitions who hopes to inherit his aunt’s spacious apartment so he can impress an older female novelist modeled, unflatteringly, on Beauvoir. Beauvoir believed Sarraute had been critical of her novel The Mandarins (1954), about the political and sexual entanglements of Parisian intellectuals at the end of World War II, when the unity of the Resistance was splintering into divisions in the left, mostly over the Soviet Union. The book features a very thinly disguised Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus making a lot of political pronouncements and has a subplot that fictionalizes Beauvoir’s real-life affair with the American writer Nelson Algren.
The rivalry between Sarraute and Beauvoir was intellectual, political, aesthetic, and possibly sexual. In her biography of Beauvoir, Deirdre Bair says that relations between the two writers were “close to open warfare”—a prime example of how Beauvoir “could not tolerate women of strong intellect as close friends, especially if they were writers and, by extension, competitors.” Beauvoir speculated in her diary that Sarraute was frustrated by Sartre’s lack of sexual interest in her, but there’s little mention of this in Jefferson’s biography. She does, however, write that Sartre and Beauvoir took a series of younger Russian women as lovers, but Sarraute wasn’t among them. In a 1990 interview in The Paris Review, Sarraute said that she liked Sartre as a friend but found him “physically…repulsive.” Jefferson writes that Sarraute also did not participate in the infamous hanky-panky in the attic of Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine.
Beyond this high-level gossip, the intellectual and political tensions between Sarraute and Beauvoir still resonate today, centering as they do on contrasting visions of womanhood and especially of female difference. A foundational concept of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is how ideas of sexual difference are constructed—woman as the other of man. Sarraute was preternaturally attuned to situations in which difference becomes a means of exclusion. Rather than exploring the uniqueness of womanhood, she was interested in exploring an abstract universal essence. It was for this reason, Jefferson writes in her 2004 study, that she refused to elucidate in her fiction any of her own autobiography, especially her persecution on the basis of religion: “Sarraute always denies the relevance of these experiences to her writing, just as she also resolutely opposes any suggestion that she might be seen either as a woman writer or as a feminist one.”
In a related quest for the universal, Sarraute and her husband gave two of their three daughters gender-neutral names: Claude and Dominique. (The third is Anne.) Claude has been a journalist; one of her sons with her third husband, the writer Jean-François Revel, is a senior French civil servant and the current head of Paris’s hospital system. In her later years, Sarraute’s closest friendship was with the novelist Monique Wittig, an out lesbian thirty-five years her junior. In what seemed a competition, Wittig chose Sarraute over Duras; both writers had been on the jury of the Médicis Prize the year Wittig’s 1964 novel The Opoponax won. Wittig was also one of the few friends Sarraute made in adulthood with whom she used the French informal tu.
Was Sarraute and Wittig’s relationship romantic? Jefferson is adamant not to impose restrictive identities on Sarraute, but reading between the lines there are a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps influenced by Wittig, toward the end of her life Sarraute started “to dress as she pleased, and to find ways of inhabiting the gender-neutral role to which she had always aspired,” Jefferson writes. “This affirmation of gender neutrality was a resistance to the écriture féminine, which had emerged in the 1970s with its positive assertion of female difference.”
Today, écriture féminine, a term first coined by the French writer Hélène Cixous in 1975, has decidedly prevailed. Sarraute’s approach only underscores the enormous divide, both generational and intellectual, between her and the French writers who followed, such as Annie Ernaux, the recent Nobel laureate whose autofiction is more in the Duras vein than the Sarraute vein and lays bare her own womanhood and vulnerabilities—sex, motherhood, abortion. Sarraute’s writing was not in the slightest concerned with the body. Instead, her work is a throwback to the days of the death of the author, about which Roland Barthes wrote, “Writing is that neuter, that composite, that obliquity into which our subject flees, the black-and-white where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”
It seems that Sarraute’s work is barely read today, at least in English. Translations of everything but Tropisms, The Planetarium, and Childhood have long been out of print, as I discovered in tracking down fusty English translations of her books by her dear friend Maria Jolas from used bookstores, often deaccessioned from the libraries of American colleges where the teaching of foreign languages, especially European ones, has been in decline. Sarraute, who studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, knew English perfectly and had long discussions with Jolas over her translations. I find them stiff and literal, like reading through glasses with the wrong prescription, whereas Barbara Wright’s translation of Childhood, my favorite of Sarraute’s books, is beautiful and fluid.
Once so radical and avant-garde, Sarraute’s project of erasing the narrator, of refusing to be categorized, feels like a vestige of another time. Today we are almost as far away from the nouveau roman as the nouveau roman was from the nineteenth-century novel it sought to dismantle. The pendulum has swung toward relatability. It is hard to imagine it swinging back anytime soon.