Nathalie Tcherniak Sarraute

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Nathalie Tcherniak Sarraute

Nathalie Sarraute (born 1900) was one of the seminal figures in the emergence of France's "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel") in the 1950s. Her work included not only novels but also plays and influential essays on literary theory.

Nathalie Tcherniak was born in Ivanovo-Voznessensk, Russia, the daughter of a chemist father and a writer mother. The date of her birth was July 18, 1900, but at one point in her career, evidently wishing to cut some years from her age, she gave the year of her birth as 1902, a figure still found in some reference works.

In 1902 her parents were divorced. She left Russia and lived with her mother in Paris, visiting her father for two months each year. In 1906 she and her mother returned to St. Petersburg; for the next two years she spent each summer with her father in France and Switzerland. In 1908 went to live with him and his second wife in Paris.

In 1920 she received a licence (equivalent to a degree) in English from the Sorbonne and began work toward a B.A. in history at Oxford, a project she abandoned. In 1922 she enrolled in the law school of the University of Paris, where the following year she met fellow student Raymond Sarraute. In 1925 she received her licence in law, was admitted to the Paris bar, and married. She practiced law from 1925 to 1939.

In 1932 and 1933 Sarraute composed two sketches described by some as prose poems, by others as experimental fiction. She titled these pieces Tropismes (Tropisms), and they were subsequently incorporated into her first book, which bore the same title and was published in 1939, receiving only one review.


The word tropism was taken from biology and was defined as the movement which, in response to an external stimulus, caused an organism or part of an organism to turn in a determined direction. As to her technique in applying this concept to literature, Sarraute wrote, "What I tried to do was to show certain inner 'movements' by which I had long been attracted… ."

She continued,

These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak and the feeling we manifest, all of which we are aware of experiencing, and are able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.


Her next two works were novels in which she put theories into practice: Portrait d'un inconnu (1948, published in the United States in 1958 as Portrait of a Man Unknown) and Martereau (1953, published in the United States in 1959 under the same title). The former novel received great attention because it was preceded by an introduction contributed by Jean-Paul Sartre, the foremost philosopher in France at the time and the father of the existentialist school.

Characterizing the work as an "anti-novel," Sartre observed, "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." He continued, " … for her the human being is not a character, not first and foremost a story, nor even a network of habits, but a continual coming and going between the particular and the general." Sartre concluded that by " … tenaciously depicting the reassuring, dreary world of the inauthentic, she has achieved a technique which makes it possible to attain human reality in its very existence."

Viewed from the standpoint of the conventional novel, little happened in these books. In Portrait of a Man Unknown we watched the alienation of the participants from their own family, while in Martereau an orphan observed an unexceptional family as Martereau, who may or may not be the wife's lover, swindled them.

With these two works and the essay collection L'e‧re du soupç on (1956, published in the United States in 1963 as The Age of Suspicion), Sarraute took her place in the forefront of the practitioners of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel"). This literary school also included Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, and Robert Pinget and was strongly influenced by Dostoevski, Kafka, Joyce (particularly the stream-of-consciousness technique in Ulysses), and American novelists Dos Passos and Faulkner (especially The Sound and the Fury). As critic Henri Peyre wrote in The Contemporary French Novel, they were interested in the "more dramatic models of interior monologue provided by Faulkner." He added that the " … novelists of 1940-50 who have resorted to it … have avoided taking it overseriously and using it, as it were, pure and unadulterated."

Sarraute's next novel was Le planétarium (1959, published in the United States in 1960 as The Planetarium). Although hailed as a classic example of the New Novel, this work had more plot than most of her fiction as Alain, a vague, weak intellectual, and Gisele, his wife, were allowed to occupy an apartment by their Aunt Berthe.

This was followed by her most successful work, Les fruits d'or (1963, published in the United States in 1964 as The Golden Fruits). This novel concerned an author who has published a novel titled Les fruits d'or, which was both acclaimed and attacked by some rather superficial critics. Such action as there was involved a man holding a shawl for a lady and the forgetting of an umbrella. The Golden Fruits won the International Prize for Literature in 1964.

Sarraute turned to drama in 1964 with her radio play Le silence (The Silence), which was broadcast in Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Two years later her second radio play, Le mensonge (The Lie), was broadcast simultaneously in French and German. In 1967 France's most famous actor-director, Jean-Louis Barrault, selected these two plays to open his new theater, the Petit Odéon. Other plays followed: Isma in 1970, C'est beau (It's Beautiful) in 1973, and Elle est la‧ (She Is There) in 1975. All these dramatic works were collected in Le théâtre de Nathalie Sarraute (1978, published in the United States in 1981 as Collected Plays). Another play, Pour un oui ou pour un non (For a Yes or for a No), was written in 1982.

Sarraute did not abandon fiction, however, releasing Entre la vie et la mort in 1968 (published in the United States in 1969 as Between Life and Death); Vous les entendez? in 1972 (published in the United States in 1973 as Do You Hear Them?); " disent les imbéciles" in 1976 (published in the United States in 1977 as " fools say" ); and L'usage de la parole in 1980 (published in the United States in 1983 as The Use of Speech), a collection of short pieces around a unifying theme.

Later Works

Sarraute's literary output continued into ripe old age, as Enfance was published in 1983 and Ici followed in 1995. Interviewing her for the New Yorker (June 27, 1983), Jane Kramer wrote, "Old age seems to have distilled her, leaving only the radiant, essential qualities that small children and great beauties have. Speaking about Enfance in a radio interview recorded in the late 1980s while she completed Tu ne t'aimes pas, Sarraute said, "It's the first time that I am speaking in my own name, so that makes it much easier for the reader. I didn't want to write an autobiography to say 'This is all my life.' I just tried to show certain moments separated from each other; it was just that I tried to show certain feelings, inward movements that I found interesting, because they gave birth to a certain way of writing."

Elsewhere, Sarraute likened her work to poetry rather than prose. "For me, the poetry in a work is that which makes visible the invisible," she wrote. "You ask me whether I think my own works are poetic. Given what my view of poetry is, how could I possibly be expected not to think so?" [Valerie Minogue's Nathalie Sarraute and the War of the Words: A Study of Five Novels (1981].

Critical opinion on Sarraute, as on all of the New Novelists, varied considerably. Among her supporters the most enthusiastic was Claude Mauriac, who declared in The New Literature that she was "the only living author who has created anything new after Proust." In Nathalie Sarraute René Micha observed, "She descends into the depths of the psyche, strives to seize something of it, especially the movement, to designate it, to retain it for an instant, when already it is half escaping her, transforming itself, disguising itself, to bring it to the light of day and to share it." Gretchen Besser commented, "It is because she has used the medium of tropisms as a lens through which to view fundamental issues of human concern that Sarraute's work has attained a panoramic dimension. It is the recapitulation of certain universal themes…."

Peyre, however, dissented, calling Portrait of a Man Unknown" a failure, though an interesting one … an honest, pedestrian, and fumbling search for authenticity." He added, "But good intentions count scantly in literature." He adjudged Martereau" not a much better performance" and labeled The Age of Suspicion" overpraised." His summary: "She is a serious but hardly an inventive or revolutionary novelist …," although he conceded that she had a "fine intellect."

Further Reading

The best biography in English was Nathalie Sarraute by Gretchen R. Besser (1979). There were mentions and/or analyses in The Contemporary French Novel by Henri Peyre (1955), French Novelists of Today by Peyre (1955), and The New Literature by Claude Mauriac (1959). Excerpts from her writing can be found in The French New Novel by Laurent LeSage (1962).

Other works of critical analysis included Nathalie Sarraute (Collection Monographique Rodopi: En Literature Francaise Contemporaine Sous La Direction De Michael Biship, No 24 by Bettina Knapp (1994); Nathalie Sarraute: Metaphor, Fairy-Tale and the Feminine of the Text (Writing About Women Feminist Literary Studies, Vol 13 by John Phillips (1994); and Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process by Sarah Barbour (1993). □