Sarraute, Nathalie (1900–1999)

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Sarraute, Nathalie (1900–1999)

Innovative French writer who helped to devise and popularize the "new novel" or "antinovel" in French literature. Pronunciation: Sa-ROTE. Born Nathalie Cherniak on July 18, 1900 (some sources cite 1902), in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Russia; died in Chérence, France, in October 1999; daughter of Ilya or Elie Cherniak (a chemist) and Pauline Chatunskaya Cherniak (a writer); attended public school in France, 1905–14, Sorbonne, 1914–20, Oxford University, 1920–21, University of Berlin, 1921–22, University of Paris Law School, 1922–25; married Raymond Sarraute (a lawyer), in July 1923 (died 1984); children: three daughters, Claude Sarraute; Anne Sarraute; Dominique Sarraute.

Left Russia to live part-time in France (1902); parents divorced (1904); began to live permanently with her father in France (1908); started practice of law in France (1925); began to write fiction (1932); published first book, Tropismes (1939); hid from the Germans during occupation of France (1941–43); won International Literary Prize for Les Fruits d'or (1964).

Selected works:

(fiction) Tropismes (Tropisms, 1939), Portrait d'un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown, 1948), Martereau (1953), Le Planétarium (The Planetarium, 1959), Les Fruits d'or (The Golden Fruits, 1963), Entre la vie et la mort (Between Life and Death, 1968), Vous les entendez? (Do You Hear Them?, 1972), "disent les imbéciles" ("fools say," 1976), Tu ne t'aimes pas (You Don't Love Yourself, 1989), Ici (Here, 1995); (memoir) Enfance (Childhood, 1983); (essays) L'Ere du soupçon (Age of Suspicion, 1956); (plays) Silence (1964), The Lie (1966), Isma (1970).

Nathalie Sarraute was one of 20th-century France's most distinguished writers. Starting in the 1930s, she became a pioneer in the development of an experimental form of fiction known variously as "the new novel" or "the antinovel." Sarraute claimed to be inspired by the great writers who revolutionized fiction at the start of the 20th century: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf , and Franz Kafka. Starting where they left off, she saw herself "taking up that development again." Eschewing any effort to connect her work to present-day events or political positions, Sarraute, a master of dialogue, concentrated instead on the interior life and thoughts of the human species. In her earliest works, she limited some of the innovations in her style by placing a narrator at the center of plotless stories. In time, even this concession to older forms faded away. Writes Margaret Crosland : "Sarraute's work brings the reader not action, drama, or speed, but a prickly, shifting mass of colourless half expressed images indicating a form of communication." In Crosland's view, appreciation of Sarraute's work "depends first of all on one's capacity for enjoying technique in itself."

The French novel, whose development Sarraute influenced significantly, changed in the course of the 20th century, with the assault on old forms intensifying in the years after 1945. French writers increasingly rejected the style of writing personified by Honoré Balzac, which features sharply identified characters, clear plot lines, and a link to a visible line of identifiable events. For Sarraute and likeminded writers, notes Henri Peyre, "World War II, Nazism, the social issues of 1933–39 … might just as well have occurred on another planet." Instead, the effort to explore inner reality, notably the psychology of the individual, drew writers away from a literature linked to great public events.

In an interview in 1964, Sarraute expressed her conviction that every true novelist establishes a new form in which to work, but such achievements could never be lasting. "The need to overthrow [today's discoveries] will stimulate new revolts … and hence eventually new conventions." She herself had been an active participant in the loosely tied group of "new novelists" since their emergence after World War II. Even in work done in the 1930s, Sarraute anticipated the post-1945 attack on the conventional novel by other writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet. Her difficult and seemingly eccentric style of writing at first received neither critical nor popular acceptance. Critics began to recognize her talents by the late 1940s, however, and her reputation spread widely in the following decade. Despite the heavy demands she made on her readers, Sarraute found a definite, if not massive, reading public.

Nathalie Sarraute was born in the Russian industrial city of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, near Moscow, on July 18, 1900, the daughter of Elie Cherniak, a chemist, and Pauline Cherniak , a writer. Sarraute's parents, both Russian Jews, had met in Geneva, Switzerland, while pursuing an education that was denied to individuals of their religious background in their native country. The young girl spent her first years moving back and forth between Russia and France, and her father, who had separated from Nathalie's mother and then remarried, settled in Paris in 1908. Fluent in Russian and French as a child, Sarraute learned German as well from the family of her father's second wife. She also became fluent in English at an early age. One student of her work, Ruth Temple , considers Sarraute's ability to read authors ranging from Dostoevsky to Joyce in the original as an important influence on her future literary career.

As a child of seven or eight, Nathalie first tried her hand at a novel, but a devastatingly harsh criticism of this first work from a friend of her mother, a professional writer, discouraged her from continuing the effort. Her father, a widely cultured and well-read member of the upper-middle class, engaged his daughter in valuable conversations about great writers. But he also discouraged her from taking up a career along these lines. Nonetheless, the young girl drew stimulus for her literary interests from the Parisian community of exiled Russian intellectuals whom she came to know as she grew up. After graduating from secondary school in Paris, she had three brief periods of study in which she explored a variety of subjects—English, history, sociology—in various institutions of higher education: at the Sorbonne, then at Oxford, and finally at the University of Berlin.

In 1922, Sarraute returned to France to enter the law school at the University of Paris at her father's encouragement. She completed her studies in 1925 and began a career practicing law. While at law school, she had met Raymond Sarraute, a fellow student, and the two were married in July 1923. They had three daughters, and both practiced law. Although Nathalie Sarraute carried out her professional duties with only limited enthusiasm, Raymond Sarraute went on to a distinguished career as an attorney.

In 1932 or 1933, Sarraute gave in to a longstanding urge and began to write fiction, although she would continue to practice law until 1940. Sarraute aimed at a new kind of novel, notes Germaine Brée , designed to investigate "a certain unexplored dimension of human psychic reality" as yet untouched in the fiction with which she was familiar. Sarraute later claimed that her legal training helped her work as a creative writer. Giving oral arguments made her think about the nature of spoken language, and the direct writing required in legal briefs helped her escape the complex literary forms that French students normally acquired during their higher education. Her husband strongly encouraged her writing career. Sarraute's work was marked from the start by its innovative and difficult style, and critics were slow to respond in a positive manner. Nor did she quickly find a substantial reading audience.

Her first work, Tropismes, which incorporated the writing she had been doing for the last several years, set the pattern for much of what was to follow. Sarraute investigated the relations among human beings as reflected by their imperceptible reactions to one another. Her books were devoid of plot, and often it was difficult to tell which character was speaking. Plunging the reader into uncertainty concerning the events taking place and the individuals describing those events became a hallmark of Sarraute's work.

Tropismes appeared in 1939 after being rejected by two major publishers. She was unable to call the book a novel, describing it instead as "a collection of short texts." It drew its title from the biological phenomenon in which a living organism responds in involuntary fashion to an outside stimulus. The book, which established the basic elements of her writing style for the coming decades, consisted of 19 sketches, ranging in length from one to three pages. When Tropismes was republished in 1957, it was expanded to 24 segments. According to Temple, only some of them are truly innovative; others are relatively conventional descriptions of an external reality.

I am concerned only with the inner life which is going on every moment in each of us.

—Nathalie Sarraute

In each of the innovative pieces of Tropismes, however, Sarraute charts the involuntary psychological reaction of an individual to the remarks or actions of another. The common reaction she finds is fear and misunderstanding; the human relations she portrays are unequal ones with one personality under the domination of another. There is little if any action, and it is often difficult, in this germinal work, even to tell who is speaking. Sarraute's aim, then and henceforth in her career, was to immerse her reader in a world in which individuals respond to the often thoughtless and unintended stimuli brought to them by others.

As Sarraute later claimed, she wanted to prevent the reader from seeking the normal guideposts in a written work and to block the reader from identifying the characters whose thoughts were presented and to leave the time and place of events uncertain. Nonetheless, Gretchen Rous Besser has found a continuing thread of satire in Tropismes, with Sarraute taking particular aim at women with "their frivolous concerns and useless occupations." By pouring a degree of gentle ridicule on a largely featureless individual engaging in foibles and habitual behavior, Sarraute, according to Besser, strikes at "all the countless lookalikes who reinforce his mediocrity." This pessimistic book with its stress on the bleakness of human behavior was a commercial failure, and it received only a single review, which appeared in a Belgian journal.

During the years of World War II that followed, the author's Jewish parentage put her life in peril. For two years, Sarraute took refuge in a small country village near Paris, at time pretending to be her daughters' governess, a woman named Nicole Sauvage. When she was betrayed by one of the local residents, she returned to Paris to go into hiding in her home city. Even in this perilous environment, she continued to write.

Between 1948 and 1959, Sarraute finished three books that came somewhat closer than Tropismes to the form of a novel. Nonetheless, she continued to focus on the subterranean course of human interactions she had outlined in her first work. There was no attempt to describe her characters' physical features or personalities, no effort to give them names, no discernible plot, no outside events, and no narration. Instead the reader was confronted immediately with the inner thoughts of a character.

Sarraute received an important endorsement of the first of these works, Portrait d'un inconnu, from Jean-Paul Sartre. Seeing beyond the apparent clutter of petty events and details that had mystified earlier critics, Sartre lauded her work in a preface to the book when it appeared in 1948. He also promoted it by publishing a chapter in his important journal, Les Temps modernes. The book, largely written during the wartime years, concentrated on tropisms within a single personality, an unidentified man who obsessively watches the lives of an elderly father and his daughter. He may be an observant friend of the family, but Sarraute complicates her description of his reactions to them by having him recount events that he did not witness. She also shifts the angle of observation to that of the father. This work, like Tropismes, turned out to be a commercial failure. After selling a mere 400 copies, the publisher destroyed the rest of the copies that had been printed. In a preface to a subsequent edition of Portrait d'un inconnu in 1957, Sartre used the term "antinovel" to characterize the kind of work Sarraute, now joined by a number of other authors, was doing.

Responding to the indifference with which her earlier work had been received, Sarraute tried to explain her style in a series of essays that she began publishing in 1946. Four of these were gathered into a book, L'Ere de soupçon, which appeared in 1956. In the title essay, Sarraute noted that the era of the clearly defined and pictured fictional character was over. Stimulated by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, as well as Sigmund Freud, modern readers did not need or want such guideposts in their novels. Instead, they would welcome works based on inner dialogues with no clear indication of who was speaking or thinking. Sarraute claimed that she was merely trying retrospectively to understand a style of writing she had already developed in intuitive fashion. She also found a valuable ally in the person of Alain Robbe-Grillet. He was not only a writer with similar tastes, but his position as director of an important publishing house, Les Editions de Minuit, gave her a sympathetic outlet for some of her work.

The second of these novels, Martereau, still had some conventional elements in it, such as a single narrator and a wisp of a plot. A young man is asked to buy a house for an elderly acquaintance, thereby helping the older man to evade his tax obligations. The narrator is the older man's nephew whose observations and responses to the world form the work's centerpiece.

Sarraute's reputation began its ascent in 1959 with the publication of the third of her postwar works of fiction, Le Planétarium. The book was widely and often favorably reviewed, and it has proven to be her most popular work in the eyes of an English audience. One fragmentary element of the plot involves a young man, Alain Guimiez, and his efforts to obtain his aunt's apartment for himself and his wife. Another pertains to a famous author and the younger writers who seek to get to know her. Unlike her first two novels, this book has no main narrator whose interior thoughts provide some kind of centerpiece to the work. As in Sarraute's other works, the most important element is the set of tropisms she presents. These emerge with no indication of the individual mind in which they are to be found. Writes Besser: the reader "is passed like a shuttlecock from one mind to the next, without knowing precisely where [she] is."

In the three novels written from the early 1960s through the start of the following decade, completely unidentified voices dominate the scene. According to Besser, "the result is an undiverted emphasis on the tropisms themselves." In Les Fruits d'or, published in 1963, a novel of that same name is at the book's center. Typically, Sarraute gives the reader no idea of the book's contents. Instead, she explores the reactions, i.e., tropisms, the fictitious novel evokes. These include the fear of non-conformity and the sadistic pleasure one personality takes in imposing his standards on someone else. Sarraute appeared anxious to show both the absence of any objective standard for measuring art and consequently the reserve one should exercise toward any critic's opinion. Paradoxically, her book itself won sufficient critical acclaim to receive the International Literary Prize for 1964.

The second of these works, Entre la vie et la mort, published in 1968, considers the tropisms in the mind of a writer, including those she/he develops as a result of the tropisms of others. Sarraute's exploration here of the nature of artistic creation received high praise, including novelist Mary McCarthy 's declaration, "one would have said in advance that it was impossible … to show how an author composes."

The third, Vous les entendez?, which appeared in 1972, considers the world of art from the perspective of the audience, the lover of art to whom the work is presented. A dimly identified father and his children respond to a stone figurine in the family home. The father's affection for the figurine provokes ridicule from his children, and Sarraute works with the consequent tropisms evoked on both sides of the confrontation. Typically for a work by Sarraute, Vous les entendez? lacks clearly edged characters. Even the number of children is left uncertain and their reactions merge with those of their father.

In a turn in her writing career, Sarraute began composing radio plays in the early 1960s. The main challenge in such an endeavor lay in using spoken dialogue to convey the subterranean tropisms that she continued to place at the center of her work. French stage director Jean-Louis Barrault succeeded in the difficult task of retaining the main qualities of Sarraute's work while turning several of her radio plays into production for the legitimate theater. By using silences, by focusing on trivial untruths told by one character, by placing a disruptive and provocative figure at the center of a group that must respond to him, Sarraute managed to transfer her literary techniques to the stage.

Sarraute subsequently returned to her emphasis on the novel, producing "disent les imbéciles" in 1976. Representing an even greater emphasis than heretofore on abstraction and tropisms, it consists of nothing more than dialogue uttered by several undifferentiated characters who, as Besser notes, "are disembodied voices emitting opinions." The title reflects the book's theme that ideas are important, and that the crude dismissal of an idea as something only "fools say" is the road to calamity. For some critics, this work seemed to mark a somewhat new turn in Sarraute's literary career. She appeared to admit, if only reluctantly, that literature cannot remain mute in the face of social and political concerns.

In 1983, Sarraute produced a book with the provocative title of Enfance (Childhood). Apparently a memoir of her childhood between the ages of five and eleven, it was the closest thing to an autobiography this innovative writer had ever produced. But here, too, tropisms dominate the literary scene. Notes Leon Roudiez, "the people mentioned in it are never fleshed out." He claimed that Sarraute composed the book in terms of "the stirring provoked within the child by confrontations with adults." Thus, Enfance takes place within the literary framework she had already established.

After a long hiatus, during which her husband died in 1984, Sarraute presented her devotees with an even more abstract work, Tu ne t'aimes pas, in 1989. It featured completely anonymous characters, as well as an indistinct narrator (or possibly several narrators). And advancing age did not bring an end to Sarraute's literary productivity. Ici, which appeared in 1995, resembled in form her pioneering effort in Tropismes, published almost 60 years earlier.

Sarraute's reputation as one of France's most innovative and important writers of the 20th century seems assured. "She cracks open the common place," writes Besser, "and extracts the deeper meaning hidden underneath." In the words of Claude Mauriac, a critic who placed her explicitly at the pinnacle of the literary world, "of all living writers, [she] is the one who has most profoundly and fundamentally renewed our knowledge of mankind."


Besser, Gretchen Rous. Nathalie Sarraute. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1979.

Brée, Germaine. Women Writers in France: Variations on a Theme. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Brosman, Catherine Savage, ed. French Novelists since 1900. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Crosland, Margaret. Women of Iron and Velvet and the Books They Wrote in France. London: Constable, 1976.

Mercier, Vivian. The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

Peyre, Henri. French Novelists of Today. NY: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Roudiez, Leon S. French Fiction Revisited. Elwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Sartori, Eva Martin, and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman. French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Temple, Ruth Z. Nathalie Sarraute. NY: Columbia University Press, 1968.

suggested reading:

Barbour, Sarah. Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1993.

Minoque, Valerie. Nathalie Sarraute and the War of Words. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California