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Fall 2006

Lessons with Nathalie Sarraute

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Rachel Cohen

At first the pronouns—Nathalie Sarraute's characters are often not given proper names—were confusing. In the evenings, I would pore over the opening sentences. "I asked them if they didn't feel, like me, if they didn't now and then feel something bizarre." I had a roll-top desk; behind it a window gave onto the backyard. Who were they? Didn't they feel, the narrator continued, "a vague emanation, something which came out of her and attached itself to them..." In the driveway was the dark shape of the car I borrowed to drive from high school to join the university students for the class. "They rebuffed me right away, with a little dry blow, as always, pretending not to understand: 'I find her a little boring,' they told me, 'I find her a little overwhelming.'"

The narrator was a kind of detective; I knew this because the professor —dark-haired, acerbic, and herself inspiring of an interest in which thoroughness was outdistanced only by inconclusiveness—had explained it. She had also said that the subject of the narrator's investigation was the relationship between a father and a daughter, or, really, that near the father and the daughter the narrator could see with unusual clarity the slippery exhalations of a subterranean, governing reality. The way the father sat waiting for the daughter to come and ask him for money, almost as if he were surrounded by thin filaments that would stick to her, was one such manifestation. The narrator himself sometimes doubted the reality of these furtive glidings—he, too, wanted to be part of the accepted, acceptable world—but when he had stood in front of that portrait in Holland, the portrait of an unknown man, he had seen it.

"I don't really get it," my classmates objected placidly, goading the professor into furious, eloquent defense, a defense which, now a teacher myself, I recognize as the death struggle in the clamp of the will to comfort—it would be so easy to give in, we all give in—and which even then made me realize that, though I hadn't understood a word of Portrait of an Unknown (Portrait d'un Inconnu, 1947), I had somehow liked it, and this made me read it again. It was on this second reading, tiptoeing behind the narrator, eavesdropping on the father—thick-fingered and false-genial, and dangerous, obviously dangerous—that I saw it undulating beneath the floorboards and felt that reciprocity that allows one's own impressions of the world and a writer's language to grow together and form literary knowledge.

When I went to college, I would sometimes attempt to explain a certain quality of experience to other people by referring to these scenes. "There is a writer Nathalie Sarraute," I would begin. "She writes about the kind of thing I mean. You know when someone comes into a room and everyone feels it get cold? Or when you sit across a desk from a man who has power over you and you suddenly can tell that he is strangling you, even though he hasn't moved?" In this way, I tried to express a loyalty.

Nathalie Sarraute was born Nathalie Tcherniak in 1900 in Ivanovno, of Russian Jewish parents. She lived chiefly with her mother in St. Petersburg and Paris until the age of eight-and-a-half, when her mother left her, it would turn out permanently, in a mournful apartment on the rue Marguerin, with her father, an educated and gentle man, and a stepmother, also Russian, whose youthful bravery—with her own teeth she had torn out the flesh of her arm around a snake bite—had, in France, turned to conventionality. "Parce que ça ne se fait pas," she would respond to her stepchild's questions, "because it isn't done." One day, Nathalie Sarraute asked the stepmother, "Do you detest me?" and the stepmother, after a pause, replied, "How can one detest a child?" Already, though, I am making too settled a picture; the stepmother also covered each of Sarraute's schoolbooks in dark blue paper, and ran laughing after her, pushing her bicycle, in a forest on the outskirts of Paris. Sarraute herself, hoping to catch memory off-guard, is extremely wary of the obvious, closed quality of anecdote. In Childhood (Enfance, 1983), almost all the recollections are interrogated by the two voices of herself who talk over the incidents; they are still trying to get at the reality of certain situations, some of which had also been depicted in her first book, Tropismes (1939), a collection of studies, named for the mysterious turning of plants toward the sun.

Portrait of an Unknown, Sarraute's second book, was written, as is detailed by her biographer Huguette Bouchardeau, primarily while Sarraute was in hiding. (She and her husband had divorced, which allowed him, since he had only two Jewish grandparents, to continue working according to the law—they remarried after the war.) She began the novel in the summer of 1940, in a house in Janvry, to which she and her three girls returned, hiding Samuel Beckett and his wife there for part of the summer of 1942. The Becketts had left by the time the baker decided to betray Sarraute to the authorities; the owner of the café where she wrote every day warned her in time. For the rest of the war she stayed mostly in Parmain, where she posed as a teacher in a home for children; two of her daughters, explained as her nieces, were with her. They all survived; she finished Portrait of an Unknown in the months immediately after the war; later she said this was "a very great effort." The book, with an admiring but somewhat over-existentializing introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, sold four hundred copies in 1947, but, when republished in 1956, after Sarraute's own essays and the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon and others had somewhat prepared the way for the "New Novel," was received with more recognition. Sarraute's work gradually took a revered place on the shelves of French bookstores and in the syllabi of French universities and in the Pléiade edition (from which I've made most of the translations here), brought out in 1996, two years before Sarraute's death. Though she was hailed by Susan Sontag and Richard Howard and other Americans in the 1960s, Sarraute is now very difficult to find in English. When in conversation one refers to these novels, which are of an almost terrifying ferocity, one feels as if one has gestured toward a small awkward table at the back of a crowded living room, where a dusty pink artificial flower stands in a glass case, and that people, not quite turning around to look, have nodded and wrinkled their brows, "Oh yes, we've heard of her."

I am fairly certain that I read Portrait of an Unknown again three years later, also in the spring, in Paris, at nineteen. At least I quite definitely recall the literature professor of the study-abroad program sketching a Freudian explanation of miserliness, which I believe had to do with the character of the father in the novel. As part of the same discussion, the professor, a large man with a fleshy face, also imitated, charmingly, how it had been to tiptoe down the streets of Paris in the years before the laws about cleaning up after one's dog. I did not at the time know how serious was Sarraute's attachment to Dostoevsky, nor did I understand that, in the late 1940s in France, Dostoevsky was considered "psychological" in a Freudian manner that was held to be both passé and opposed to the work of Kafka. In 1947, the year Portrait of an Unknown first appeared, Sarraute also published an essay called "From Dostoevsky to Kafka." She wrote of Dostoevsky's characters that—and she borrowed the phrase from Katherine Mansfield—they have this "terrible desire to establish contact." Generally, she was more interested in what passed between characters than in characters as isolated actors. Writing of her admiration for Virginia Woolf, Sarraute said, "Like Proust, like Joyce, like Kafka, she contributed to the transformation of novelistic material in the modern novel, to that displacement of the center of gravity of the novel which passed from character and plot to the novelistic substance itself." This displacement necessitated on the part of a novel's characters an extremely sensitive detective work: it was they who had to try to understand the material in which they were caught. Sarraute felt that the modernists had all learned from what she called "the investigative methods of Dostoevsky."

What does one find in Kafka, she asked, "if not this same passionate, anxious desire to 'establish a contact' that traverses like a conducting wire all the work of Dostoevsky?"—though, she added, in Kafka the goal of the quest had become "both more modest and farther off." The desire for contact was always, she felt, received and upheld by the other characters in Dostoevsky, and met its only rupture in Notes from Underground, which she saw as the point of departure for Kafka. In the works of Kafka, people are separated by distances "as infinite as interplanetary space," where "even as to one's own questions, one no longer knows how to conduct oneself," and—she quoted The Castle—"one no longer knows whether one has resisted or given in." Kafka's work prefigured the experiment "of the stars made of yellow sateen, distributed after two points were taken from the recipient's textile ration card." (When Sarraute found she was to be charged for her star, she determined not to wear it.) And of this territory, which Kafka had the "superhuman courage" to anticipate, she felt that "one cannot stay there with him, or attempt to go farther. Those who live on the earth of men can only turn back to look for a road."

Sarraute's own investigations are supple, watchful, epistemological; she is concerned with what her characters know and can know. They are concerned, too, though often their concern is debased, and they hoard both money and information. When the father argues with the daughter over money she wants for a medical treatment, each accuses the other of hoarding and spying, and in fact both do hoard and spy, and this shared hoarding and spying is what brings them closest together, and the fear they feel at this closeness is what makes them behave most conventionally. While they fight, the maid listens in the room at the end of the hall and the concierge listens at the keyhole.

That everyone similarly lies in wait for, and informs on, everyone else in the version of Anjou where Balzac set Eugenie Grandet is no coincidence; Sarraute intended for Portrait of an Unknown to make explicit the link between Eugenie Grandet and Kafka. Read with Kafka in mind, Eugenie Grandet surprises with how freezingly cold are the spaces between its characters; in these spaces, even filled as they are with a thick paste of barrels and acres and louis, the characters cannot get warm. Eugenie Grandet gladly gives everything she owns for love. She shares with her mother the vulnerability of hoping to be transformed. These two women, like the Underground Man or Joseph K., guess at the existence of a precarious reciprocity of understanding, which they are refused. "She no longer has a father," says the miser Grandet of his daughter. "But it was as if they had already forgotten me entirely...They were having a noisy, loud, merry time for themselves," says the Underground Man. "That means I belong to the Court," says the priest at the end of The Trial, "so why should I want anything from you? The Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go." This "nothing" echoes faintly in the distance when, at the end of Portrait of an Unknown, the surface reality closes back over the narrator, who no longer knows how to conduct himself in asking his own questions: "But no, it's nothing, this too is nothing...Even that air, a little strange, as if petrified, even that slightly inanimate air will disappear in its turn... Everything will arrange itself...It will turn out to be nothing..."

Near the beginning of Enfance, Nathalie Sarraute remembers herself sitting alone in the children's dining room of a hotel in Zurich, stubbornly chewing her food until it is "as liquid as a soup." Her mother has enjoined her not to forget this bit of doctor's advice while she is away with her father, and the remembering and chewing are not only an effort of loyalty, but a way of recognizing herself in exile. This long, intricate passage, and the mass of uncertainties and coercions bulging in Sarraute's small cheek, were not, when I read Enfance—that spring in Paris, for a project on French women's autobiography—of nearly as much interest to me as they were to Sarraute herself. My notes cluster around the briefer paragraphs where she defies her nanny—"No, that you will not do," says the nanny—and plunges a scissors into the upholstery of a hotel armchair, next to which passage I have written in small, declarative letters: "la libération de la mémoire." For me, that spring, the stuffing cascading out of the slashed brocade was the material evidence of Sarraute's first recollected rebellion against the too-smooth surfaces of things, and I did not notice the distinction Sarraute was drawing between documentation and knowledge. In what I found to be the chill world of Parisian indirection (my landlady eyeing the radiator—"You are not hot?"—or pursing her lips when I introduced myself: "But that is a Jewish name"), exposure seemed a blow for authenticity.

When the child Sarraute said to her mother of a hairdresser's window model, "She is more beautiful than you, Maman," implicitly she asked her mother not to give in to fixed divisive evidence and to speak instead from the enfolding continuity of knowledge. She hoped her mother would say, "But yes, you big stupid, of course she is," and they would walk on "tranquilly hand in hand." Her mother, though, dropped her hand, recognizing the deeper need and cruelly refusing it: "A child who loves its mother finds no one more beautiful than her." From this time, Sarraute was tormented by what she felt were disloyal thoughts; she refers to them as "mes idées." I wrote nothing in the margins of these passages, underlining, cheerfully, only the phrase "a complete and definitive independence," though what actually released Sarraute from her anguish was going to live with her father, about whom she felt that "always, against all appearances, an invisible tie which nothing was able to destroy attached us, one to the other."

Nathalie Sarraute's father had a great admiration for French schools, and from an early age she found pleasure in the classroom, "a world whose confines were traced with great precision, a solid world, visible throughout...just to my measure." She did not remember thinking of being a writer then: "What I would have liked was to be a school teacher." And yet she did not long confine herself to "a solid world, visible throughout." In her childhood bedroom, she set up a mock classroom, folding little bits of blue paper cut from her book covers and writing the name of a pupil on each one; she taught these "cocottes" —playful, disruptive, rigorous, and foolish—every night. Sometimes the teacher was harsh, sometimes the students made a hash of their lessons, sometimes deaf and bumbling inspectors came to give examinations, but this was not a place of "definitive rupture." It seems possible to me now that, in the nightly world of her paper classroom, Sarraute's own role was in part that of the novelist, and that, though the books she would write as an adult would be difficult and bleak, they would also retain, without didacticism, some quality of teacherliness, an idea of kindliness and order and growth, which would make it natural for them to become entwined with memories of learning.

Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. She has been writing for The Threepenny Review since 1999, and her essays also appear in The New Yorker and Book Forum. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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