Sarraute, Nathalie 1900-1999

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SARRAUTE, Nathalie 1900-1999

PERSONAL: Born July 18, 1900, in Ivanovo-Voznessensk, Russia; died October 19, 1999, in Paris, France; daughter of Ilya (a chemist) and Pauline (a writer; maiden name, Chatounovsky) Tcherniak; married Raymond Sarraute (a barrister), July 28, 1925 (divorced, 1940; remarried, 1956); children: Claude, Anne, Dominique. Education: Sorbonne, University of Paris, licence d'anglais, 1920, licence en droit; 1925; attended Oxford University, 1921; additional study in Berlin, 1921-22; University of Paris, studied law, 1922.

CAREER: Attorney, 1925-39; fictionwriter, beginning 1939.

AWARDS, HONORS: Formentor Prize and Prix Internationale de Litterature, both 1964, both for The Golden Fruits; doctor honoris causa, Trinity College, Dublin, 1976, University of Kent at Canterbury, 1980, and Oxford University, 1991; Grand Prix National, 1982; Prix Cavour, 1984.



Tropismes (sketches), Denoel (Paris, France), 1939, revised edition, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1957, translation by Maria Jolas published as Tropisms(also see below), Braziller (New York, NY), 1967, reprinted, Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1986.

Portrait d'un inconnu (novel), with preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Marin (Paris, France), 1948, reprinted, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1977, translation by Maria Jolas published as Portrait of a Man Unknown, Braziller (New York, NY), 1958.

Martereau (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1953, translation by Maria Jolas published as Martereau, Braziller (New York, NY), 1959.

Le Planetarium (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1959, 2nd edition, 1967, translation by Maria Jolas published as The Planetarium, Braziller (New York, NY), 1960.

Les Fruits d'or (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1963, translation by Maria Jolas published as The Golden Fruits, Braziller (New York, NY), 1964.

Entre la vie et la mort (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1968, translation by Maria Jolas published as Between Life and Death, Braziller (New York, NY), 1969.

Vous les entendez? (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1972, translation by Maria Jolas published as Do You Hear Them?, Braziller (New York, NY), 1973.

"Disent les imbeciles" (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1976, translation by Maria Jolas published as "Fools Say," Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.

L'Usage de la parole (sketches), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1980, translation by Barbara Wright published as The Use of Speech, Braziller (New York, NY), 1983.

Tu ne t'aimes pas, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1989, translation by Barbara Wright published as You Don't Love Yourself (novel), Braziller (New York, NY), 1990.

Ici, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1995, translation by Barbara Wright published as Here: A Novel, George Braziller (New York, NY), 1997.


L'Ere du soupcon: Essais sur le roman, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1956, translation by Maria Jolas published as The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel (also see below), Braziller (New York, NY), 1963.

Paul Valery et l'enfant d'elephant (first published in Les Temps modernes, January, 1947) [and] Flaubert le precurseur (first published in Preuves, February, 1965), Gallimard (Paris, France), c. 1986.


Le Silence [and] Le Mensonge (both plays first broadcast on German radio, both produced in Petit Odeon at Theatre de France, January 14, 1967), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1967, translation by Maria Jolas published in England as Silence [and] The Lie, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1969.

Isma; ou, Ce qui s'appelle rien (produced at Espace Pierre-Cardin, February 5, 1973) [and] Le Silence [and] Le Mensonge, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1970.

Theatre (contains C'est beau, first performed at Theatre d'Orsay, October 24, 1975, Elle est la, first performed at Theatre d'Orsay, January 15, 1980, Isma, Le Mensonge, and Le Silence), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1978, translation by Maria Jolas and Barbara Wright published as Collected Plays of Nathalie Sarraute (contains It Is There, It's Beautiful, Izzum, The Lie, and Silence), J. Calder (London, England), 1980, Braziller (New York, NY), 1981.

Also author of For No Good Reason, first produced in New York City in 1985.


Tropisms [and] The Age of Suspicion, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1964.

Enfance (autobiography), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1983, translation by Barbara Wright published as Childhood, Braziller (New York, NY) 1984.

(With Simone Benmussa) Nathalie Sarraute: Qui êtesvous, edited by Simone Benmussa, La Manufacture (Lyon, France), 1987.

Ouvrez, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1997.

Contributed to many publications such as Visages d'aujourd'hui, Plon, 1960; The Writer's Dilemma, Oxford University Press, 1961; The Novel Today: Edinburgh International Festival 1962—International Writers' Conference; Programme and Notes, edited by Andrew Hook, R. R. Clark, 1962; Les Critiques de notre temps et Camus, edited by Jacqueline Levi-Valensi, Garnier, 1970; Violoncelle qui resiste, Eric Losfeld, 1971; Gespraeche mit, Europaverlag, 1972; Nouveau roman: Hier, aujourd'hui (text not reviewed by Sarraute), edited by Jean Ricardou and Francoise von Rossum-Guyon, Union Generale d'Editions, 1972; Words and Their Masters, Doubleday, 1974; Comment travaillent les ecrivains, Flammarion, 1978; and Du monologue interieur a la sousconversation, edited by Frida S. Weissman, Nizet, 1978. Sarraute's works have been translated into other languages, including German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. Contributor to numerous journals and periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Times Literary Supplement, Cahiers Renaud Barrault, Le Monde, Les Temps modernes, Nouvelle Revue Française, and Preuves.

ADAPTATIONS: Childhood was adapted as a play by Simone Benmussa and premiered in Paris in 1984. The American premiere, both adapted and directed by Benmussa, was produced in 1985 at the Samuel Beckett Theater, New York City, featuring Glenn Close in the starring role.

SIDELIGHTS: As one of the outstanding writers and theoreticians of the "New Novel" in France, Nathalie Sarraute consistently sought to create innovative forms of narrative that apprehend the psychological reality beneath the surface of daily events and conversations. Her work received little critical attention until the publication of her theoretical work, L'Ere du soupcon: Essais sur le roman (The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel), and her novel Les Fruits d'or (The Golden Fruits). Sarraute's novels are complex studies of human interaction that reject traditional elements of character and plot, while challenging the reader to reassess common assumptions about literature and its relationship to life.

One of the hallmarks of Sarraute's literary work is the "tropism." Borrowing the term from the biological sciences—where it characterizes an involuntary reaction to external stimuli, as when a plant turns toward light or heat—Sarraute uses it to describe the subtle psychological responses of people to objects, words, and other human beings. In the Listener, Sarraute explained tropisms as movements that "glide quickly round the border of our consciousness" and "compose the small, rapid, and sometimes very complex dramas concealed beneath our actions, our gestures, the words we speak, our avowed and clear feelings." Tropisms, Sarraute's earliest work, is composed of short texts that investigate what Valerie Minogue, in Nathalie Sarraute and the War of the Words, called "the teeming sub-surface of life, anonymously yet intimately observed." The reader is thrust into the midst of a world of unidentified characters (nameless women gossiping in a tea salon, passersby in front of a shop window) who experience sensations that are dramatically and poetically rendered through imagery, rhythm, and repetition. Character development and plot are minimal, Sarraute explained, because such novelistic traits tend to particularize experience and to distract the reader from Sarraute's portrayal of an underlying psychological reality common to everyone.

In The Age of Suspicion, the author develops many of her critical and theoretical stances regarding the novel and clarifies her own creative goals. In an interview for the 1984 issue of Digraphe devoted to her work, Sarraute defined the "real" as "what hasn't yet taken on the conventional forms" and held that the writer's task is not to copy or imitate accepted reality, but to invent new forms that will help the reader perceive new realities. In her investigation of the human psyche, Sarraute makes a case for formal innovations that shape the experience of the reader. Instead of calling for controlled analyses of carefully defined feelings, she develops the notion of the "subconversation," which renders verbally "what is dissimulated behind the interior monologue: a countless profusion of sensations, of images, of feelings, of memories . . . which no interior language expresses." She thus portrays instinctive, instantaneous reactions before they become fully understood and named, insisting that the passage from subconversation to dialogue must be continuous: no standard formulas like "she said" or "George murmured" are to interrupt the flow of "these interior dramas made up of attacks, triumphs, defeats, caresses." Sarraute uses imagery to present the unnameable sensations that make up the tropism. As Gretchen Rous Besser pointed out in Nathalie Sarraute, the novelist often utilizes the imagery of animals and insects "whose instinctive reactions are consonant with the prerational nature of tropistic reactions."

In his preface to Sarraute's first novel, Portrait d'un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown), Jean-Paul Sartre characterized the work as an antinovel because it contests traditional novelistic conventions. A first-person narrator, who remains a nameless voice, "is speaking or writing or dreaming or reflecting" about a father and daughter whose relationship fascinates and perhaps obsesses him. The boundaries between the narrator's imagination and his actual knowledge about the couple tend to blur because there are no linguistic markers to distinguish between fact and fiction, between objective reality and creative interpretation.

The characters of Sarraute's second novel, Martereau, include an entire family, creating more complex interpersonal interactions. Except for Martereau, characters are identified only by personal pronouns or family relationships. The readers must make their way through this labyrinth of shifting connections by remaining attentive to certain repeated words and rhythms, which Minogue called Sarraute's "signposts." This technique stresses the characters' common ground, instead of individualizing them according to an established set of categories. Sarraute's works define labels, proper names, and abstractions as tools to conceal the multifaceted aspects of life. Martereau is, at first, one of these stock individuals, a "traditional novel character," said Sarraute in Digraphe, "in the way that we see the people around us"—that is, from the outside. But as the novel progresses, the external appearance disintegrates.

Regarding her novel Le Planetarium ("The Planetarium"), Sarraute remarked in the Listener: "Here I met with greater difficulties than in my previous books." Sarraute's third novel is populated by a large cast of characters with proper names, but, again, elaborate descriptions of place and time are absent. Sarraute may have named the characters to supply the reader with more recognizable markers because of the complex interaction between characters, but the names do not serve as a claim to uniqueness, for the novel concludes with the comment: "I think that we are all a little like that," and the characters' similarities ultimately loom larger than their differences. In a 1965 Tel Quel article, Lucette Finas commented on the novel's quick psychological maneuvers and reversals: "All the dialogues have their victim and their tormenter who exchange roles from one page to the next, sometimes from one retort to the next."

With the publication of her next three novels, Les Fruits d'or (The Golden Fruits), Entre la vie et la mort (Between Life and Death), and Vous les entendez? (Do You Hear Them?), Sarraute adroitly focuses her attention on artistic creation and critical reception. The Golden Fruits follows the path of an imaginary novel as it is created, critically received, heralded, and then forgotten. Like the various objects in The Planetarium, it serves as a pretext around which a group of anonymous voices battle for superiority of literary judgment, juxtaposing everyday colloquial language and poetic metaphors that capture the underlying emotions of the moment. Sarraute uses many elliptical sentences that trail off without finishing. These fragmentary remarks underscore the commonplace quality of the discussions and, as Sarraute explained in a letter to CA, imply that the reader is "supposed to know how they would finish." But they also suggest that thoughts and impressions are formed and "cross our minds very quickly. There is no time to waste for building correct, well-rounded sentences."

The Golden Fruits highlights the process of reading, experiencing, and evaluating literature, and Sarraute calls her reader to participate actively in the interrogation. The tropism is not just a phenomenon to be perceived and understood by readers, but reenacted as they move toward and away from the speakers' comments about the imaginary novel. Although critical positions abound in the novel, no single stance (or voice) can triumph over the others. One voice comments near the end of the book: "Art as you say, a work of art is never a sure value. . . . One is often wrong, that's natural. How can one know? Who can say that he knows?" The open-ended questions of Sarraute's novel suggest that any work of art undergoes a continual re-evaluation according to the needs of a particular society at a given moment in history.

In Between Life and Death, Sarraute turns her attention to the writer's activity, pondering the act of creation from the inside, as well as the writer's interactions with his public. In this work, which she has stated is not autobiographical, Sarraute is more concerned with problems in the perception of writers than with the portrait of a specific individual. She refers to the writer as a "he" rather than a "she," which distances Sarraute from her work and avoids an identification between them. The reader shares in the writer's solitary moments of joy and anguish as he labors over his manuscript, wondering whether his writing is original, facile, or interesting, whether it is alive or dead. Once he has written something, the writer splits himself in two to evaluate his effort.

Sarraute completed the trilogy of The Golden Fruits and Between Life and Death with Do You Hear Them?, focusing, as she said in her interview with Bree, on "the relationship between the work of art, the environment into which it falls, and its fate in general." In his home, a man and his friend contemplate a small stone figurine of primitive art while the man's children are heard laughing upstairs. The domestic drama lies in the tension between the father's love of the statue and his love for his children, who rebel against what they see as his quasi-religious devotion to art, favoring free artistic creation untrammeled by rules and a weighty sense of tradition. The father interprets the children's effervescent laughter as, in turns, carefree and innocent or mocking and deceitful. Besser noted how the metaphorical descriptions of the children's gleeful voices pass from poetic cliche ("Tiny bells. Tiny drops. Fountains. Gentle water-falls. Twittering of birds.") to ominous images of persecution: "Soon the 'titters' grow 'sharp as needles,' and the water drips on its victim like a Chinese torture." When Besser asked Sarraute which of the two opposing conceptions of art she would herself choose, the novelist responded that she could identify with both. Sarraute told Besser about the novel, "I wanted to show a kind of interaction between consciousnesses which are extremely close to one another to the extent that they almost fuse and communicate by a kind of osmosis. . . . What each one feels and attributes to another becomes any one of the others at any given moment."

In her next two works, "Disent les imbeciles" ("Fools Say") and L'Usage de la parole (The Use of Speech), Sarraute pushes the novelistic genre to the limit. In fact, The Use of Speech is often not considered a novel at all. Neither work presents one story line or character to unite the fragmented episodes. Instead, the author creates a series of interpersonal exchanges in which anonymous voices react to the effects of linguistic labeling, to the power of cliches to imprison the individual in stock phrases and concrete descriptions. The episodes are unified by the relentless study of the way language intervenes in the development of ideas and of human identity. Of "Fools Say," Ellen E. Munley commented in Contemporary Literature, "Sarraute scrutinizes the tropistic proximity and distance, the fusion and separation created by language. Words speak actions. . . . Words create a cast of characters erected at a distance." Minogue described the setting of "Fools Say" as "a terrorist world, against which Nathalie Sarraute raises a voice that insists that any idea, however comforting, or however disconcerting it may be, must be treated as an idea, not as an appurtenance of a personality, group, class, nation, or race."

The Use of Speech is a collection of ten essays or sketches more reminiscent of Tropisms than of a conventional novel. Again, Sarraute focuses her attention on the resonances of certain verbal expressions. Munley commented that The Use of Speech differs from Sarraute's previous works in that "it contains a self-styled narrator—doctor of words who joins all of its loosely connected vignettes by virtue of her presence." This narrator does not directly participate as one of the characters in the vignettes, which perhaps anticipates Sarraute's subsequent interest in writing an account of her early years in her autobiographical Enfance (Childhood).

You Don't Love Yourself continues to explore self and identity in a novel devoid of conventional plot or characterization. Consisting of interior dialogues between various parts of a single personality, the novel is a study of the themes of self-love and self-hate. "This is Mrs. Sarraute's rendering of the language of the self," noted New York Times Book Review reviewer Ginger Danto, "notably the self that does not love itself, whose fractured ego ebbs now into self-loathing and illusion, now into envy and regret-subjective musings possibly, but not necessarily, provoked by circumstance."

It might seem surprising that Sarraute, who has steadfastly questioned the status of personal identity and unequivocal factual truth, wrote Childhood, a series of autobiographical texts about her early relationships with her families and her first experiences in language. But for Sarraute, autobiography is still literature, another terrain for prospecting the subterranean tropisms of her own experiences. Instead of the singular "I" usually found in autobiography, this work contains two narrators in dialogue: while one voice narrates episodes from the past, the other admonishes, encourages, censures, and interprets what the first has presented. Sarraute makes no attempt to connect the various episodes she relates, for identity is conceived as split or fragmented, and interpretation is acknowledged in the text as a necessary component of memory. The author's personae and her past are recognized as fictive re-creations like those in her other literary works.

Sarraute's last two books follow the same conventions as her previous works. Ici (Here) is a compilation of sketches in which the author meditates on words and how their interpretations can impact different interactions. Nancy Pearl noted in Booklist that Sarraute's books "frustrate readers who expect the conventional in contemporary fiction, and Here is no exception." While a Publishers Weekly reviewer expressed a similar sentiment, the reviewer also lauded Ici, calling it "brilliant and innovative," and concluding that "Sarraute's eye for the perfect metaphor, and ear for the rhythms of thought, are reason enough to read this stunning work." Sarraute's last work, Ouvrez, contains eighteen short, untitled vignettes on language's ambiguities. The author's sentiments are revealed through random conversations. Reviewer John L. Brown contended in World Literature Today that Sarraute "still maintains . . . a reputation as one of the most innovative writers of her time and also one of the most difficult to categorize, not only as a novelist, but also, and especially, as a theoretician who has explored in numerous essays such as Ouvrez what she considers new ways of perceiving reality, of understanding human behavior."



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Allemand, Andre, L'Oeuvre romanesque de Nathalie Sarraute, Editions de la Baconniere (Neuchatel, Switzerland), 1980.

Alter, Robert, Partial Magic: The Novel As a Self-Conscious Genre, University of California Press, 1975.

Barbour, Sarah, Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process, Associated University Presses, 1993.

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Benmussa, Simone, Entretiens avec Nathalie Sarraute, Le Renaissance du Livre (Tournai, Belgium), 1999.

Besser, Gretchen Rous, Nathalie Sarraute, Twayne, 1979.

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Calin, Francoise, La Vie retrouvee: Etude de l'oeuvre romanesque de Nathalie Sarraute, Minard (Paris), 1976.

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