Authors: Nathalie Sarraute
The great interest shown today in discussions of the novel, and especially in the theories advanced by the supporters of what, in France at present, is called the “Nouveau Roman,” has led many to imagine that these theorizing novelists are cool calculators who began by constructing their theories, which they then decided to put into practice in their books. This explains the fact that their novels have been referred to as “laboratory experiments.”
If this were the case, it might seem plausible that, one fine day, after having formulated certain opinions on the evolution, content and form of the present-day novel, I sat down at my table and undertook to apply them by writing
and the books that followed.
Nothing could be more mistaken than this supposition. For no literary work can be a mere illustration of principles, however convincing. And, in fact, these articles, all of which were written since 1947, are far removed from the conception and composition of my first book.
I started to write in 1932, when I composed my first
At that time, I had no preconceived ideas on the subject of literature, and this one, as were those that followed it, was written under the impact of an emotion, of a very vivid impression. What I tried to do was to show certain inner “movements” by which I had long been attracted; in fact, I might even say that, ever since I was a child, these movements, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives, had struck and held my attention. In this domain, my first impressions go back very far.
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, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and 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.
And since, while we are performing them, no words express them, not even those of the interior monologueâfor they develop and pass through us very rapidly in the form of frequently very sharp, brief sensations, without our perceiving clearly what they areâit was not possible to communicate them to the reader otherwise than by means of equivalent images that would make him experience analogous sensations. It was also necessary to make them break up and spread out in the consciousness of the reader the way a slow-motion film does. Time was no longer the time of real life, but of a hugely amplified present.
These movements seemed to me to be veritable dramatic actions, hiding beneath the most commonplace conversations, the most everyday gestures, and constantly emerging up to the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them.
The dramatic situations constituted by these invisible actions interested me as such. Nothing could distract my attention from them and nothing should distract that of the reader; neither the personality of the characters, nor the plot, by means of which, ordinarily, the characters evolve. The barely visible, anonymous character was to serve as a mere prop for these movements, which are inherent in everybody and can take place in anybody, at any moment.
Thus my first book is made up of a series of moments, in which, like some precise dramatic action shown in slow motion, these movements, which I called
come into play. 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.
This analogy, however, is limited to the instinctive, irresistible nature of the movements, which are produced in us by the presence of others, or by objects from the outside world. It obviously never occurred to me to compare human beings with insects or plants, as I have sometimes been reproached with doing.
The volume entitled
appeared in 1939, under the imprimatur of DenoÃ«l. The present edition, source of this translation, was published by the
Editions de Minuit,
in 1957. It is a corrected re-edition of the 1939 volume, to which have been added the six last texts, written between 1939 and 1941.
This first book contains
all the raw material that I have continued to develop in my later works.
Tropisms are still the living substance of all my books, the only difference being that the time of the dramatic action they constitute is longer, and there is added complexity in the constant play that takes place between them and the appearances and commonplaces with which they emerge into the open: our conversations, the personality we seem to have, the person we seem to be in one another's eyes, the stereotyped things we believe we feel, as also those we discover in others, and the superficial dramatic action constituted by plot, which is nothing but a conventional code that we apply to life.
They seemed to spring up from nowhere, blossoming out in the slightly moist tepidity of the air, they flowed gently along as though they were seeping from the walls, from the boxed trees, the benches, the dirty sidewalks, the public squares.
They stretched out in long, dark clusters between the dead house fronts. Now and then, before the shop windows, they formed more compact, motionless little knots, giving rise to occasional eddies, slight cloggings.
A strange quietude, a sort of desperate satisfaction emanated from them. They looked closely at the piles of linen in the White Sale display, clever imitations of snow-covered mountains, or at a doll with teeth and eyes that, at regular intervals, lighted up, went out, lighted up, went out, lighted up, went out, each time at the same interval, lighted up again and again went out.
They looked for a long time, without moving, they remained there, in offering, before the shop windows, they kept postponing till the next interval the moment of leaving. And the quiet little children, whose hands they held, weary of looking, listless, waited patiently beside them.
They tore themselves away from their wardrobe mirrors in which they were examining their faces. Sat up in their beds. “Dinner is ready, dinner is ready,” she said. She rounded up the family, each one hiding in his lair, lonely, ill-tempered, exhausted. “What on earth is the matter with them, for them always to look so worn out?” she said when she talked to the cook.
She talked to the cook for hours, fussing about the table, always fussing about, preparing various medicines for them, or special dishes, she talked on and on, criticizing the people who came to the house, friends of theirs: “so-and-so's hair will darken, it will be like her mother's, and straight; people are lucky who don't need a permanent.”â“Mademoiselle has pretty hair,” said the cook, “it's thick and pretty, even if it doesn't curl.”â“And so-and-so, I'm sure he didn't leave you a thing. They're stingy, they're all stingy, and they've got money, they've got money, it's revolting. And they're always economizing. Personally, that's something I don't understand.”â“After all,” said the cook, “after all, they can't take it with them. And that daughter of theirs, she's not married yet, and she's not bad, she has pretty hair, her nose is small, and her feet are pretty too.”â“Yes, pretty hair, that's true,” she said, but, you know, nobody likes her, she's not attractive. It's really funny.”
And he sensed percolating from the kitchen, humble, squalid, time-marking human thought, marking time in one spot, always in one spot, going round and round, in circles, as if they were dizzy but couldn't stop, as if they were nauseated but couldn't stop, the way we bite our nails, the way we tear off dead skin when we're peeling, the way we scratch ourselves when we have hives, the way we toss in our beds when we can't sleep, to give ourselves pleasure and make ourselves suffer, until we are exhausted, until we've taken our breath away. .Â .Â .
“But perhaps for them it was something else.” This was what he thought, listening stretched out on his bed while, like some sort of sticky slaver, their thought filtered into him, lined him internally. There was nothing to be done about it. Nothing to be done. To avoid it was impossible. Everywhere, in countless forms, “deception” (“The sun is deceptive today,” the concierge said, “it's deceptive and you risk catching your death. That was how my poor husband .Â .Â . and yet he liked to take care of himself .Â .Â .”) everywhere, in the guise of life itself, it caught hold of you as you went by, when you hurried past the concierge's door, when you answered the telephone, lunched with the family, invited your friends, spoke a word to anybody, whoever it might be.
You had to answer them and encourage them gently, and above all, above everything, not make them feel, not make them feel a single second, that you think you're different. Be submissive, be submissive, be retiring: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, that's true, that's certainly true,” that's what you should say to them, and look at them warmly, affectionately, otherwise a rending, an uprooting, something unexpected, something violent would happen, something that had never happened before, and which would be frightful.
It seemed to him that then, in a sudden surge of action, of power, with immense strength, he would shake them like old soiled rags, would wring them, tear them, destroy them completely.
They had come to live in the quiet little streets behind the PanthÃ©on, near the Rue Gay-Lussac or the Rue Saint-Jacques, in apartments giving on to dark courtyards, perfectly decent, however, and comfortably equipped.
This was what was offered them here, this, and freedom to do what they wanted, to walk about as they wanted, in any sort of getup with any sort of face, on the homely little streets.
Here no formal behavior was required of them, no activities in common with others, no sentiments, no memories. They were offered an existence that was at once despoiled and protected, an existence like a waiting room in a deserted suburban railway station, a bare, gray, lukewarm room, with a black stove in the middle and wooden benches along the walls.
And they were contented, they liked it here, they felt almost at home, they were on good terms with Mme. la Concierge, with the grocery woman, they took their clothes to the most conscientious and least expensive cleaner in the neighborhood.
They never tried to recall the place in the country where once they had played, they never tried to recapture the color and the smell of the little town they had grown up in, they never saw suddenly appear before their mind's eye, when walking along the streets in their neighborhood, when looking in the shop windows, when they went past the concierge's door and greeted her very politely, they never saw rise up in their recollections a bit of wall inundated with life, or the paving stones of a courtyard, vivid and caressing, or the gentle steps of a front stoop on which they had sat in their childhood.
On the stairway in their house they occasionally met the “tenant downstairs,” a teacher, who came home from school with his two children at four o'clock. All three had pale eyes set in long heads as shiny and smooth as large ivory eggs. The door of their apartment opened narrowly for a second to allow them to pass. They were seen to put their feet on little felt squares laid out on the entrance floorâand move silently away, gliding towards the dark end of the corridor.
They were jabbering half-expressed things, with a far-off look as though they were following inwardly some subtle, delicate sentiment that they seemed unable to convey.
He insisted: “So why? Why? Why am I selfish then? Why am I misanthropic? Why is it? Say it, say it!”
Deep down inside them, they knew that they were playing a game, that they were submitting to something. At times it seemed to them that they never took their eyes off a wand inside him that he kept waving as though to lead them, that he moved gently to make them obey, like a ballet master. There, there, there, they danced, pirouetted and wheeled about, provided a little wit, a little intelligence, but as though without touching anything, without ever moving on to the forbidden plane that might displease him.
“So why? Why? Why?” Go ahead! Forward! Ah, no, that's not it! Backward! Backward! Yes, of course, the playful tone, yes, again, gently, on their toes, jesting and irony. Yes, yes, we can try, it takes well. And now a naÃ¯ve manner so as to dare to say truths that might seem harsh, to show interest in him, because he loved that, tease him, he adored that game. There now, watch out, gently, gently, it's getting dangerous, but we can try, he might find it pithy, amusing, tantalizing. Now it's a story, the story of a scandal, of the private lives of people he knows, to whose home he is frequently invited, and who look up to him. That will interest him, generally he likes that .Â .Â . But he doesn't! Ah! That was mad, it doesn't interest him, or it displeased him; he suddenly frowns, how frightening he is, he is going to snub them with a furious scowl, he is going to say something vilifying to them, make them conscious of their baseness (they don't know how), if not now at least on the first occasion, without their being able to answer him, in that roundabout way of his, which is so mean.
Heavens, how exhausting! How exhausting is all this effort, this perpetual hopping and skipping about in his presence: backward, forward, forward, forward, and backward again, now circling about him, then again on one's toes, with eyes glued to him, and sidewise and forward and backward, to give him this voluptuous pleasure.
On hot July days, the wall opposite cast a brilliant, harsh light into the damp little courtyard.
Underneath this heat there was a great void, silence, everything seemed in suspense: the only thing to be heard, aggressive, strident, was the creaking of a chair being dragged across the tiles, the slamming of a door. In this heat, in this silence, it was a sudden coldness, a rending.
And she remained motionless on the edge of her bed, occupying the least possible space, tense, as though waiting for something to burst, to crash down upon her in the threatening silence.
At times the shrill notes of locusts in a meadow petrified by the sun and as though dead, induce this sensation of cold, of solitude, of abandonment in a hostile universe in which something anguishing is impending.
In the silence, penetrating the length of the old blue-striped wallpaper in the hall, the length of the dingy paint, she heard the little click of the key in the front door. She heard the study door close.
She remained there hunched up, waiting, doing nothing. The slightest act, such as going to the bathroom to wash her hands, letting the water run from the tap, seemed like a provocation, a sudden leap into the void, an extremely daring action. In the suspended silence, the sudden sound of water would be like a signal, like an appeal directed towards them; it would be like some horrible contact, like touching a jellyfish with the end of a stick and then waiting with loathing for it suddenly to shudder, rise up and fall back down again.
She sensed them like that, spread out, motionless, on the other side of the walls, and ready to shudder, to stir.
She did not move. And about her the entire house, the street, seemed to encourage her, seemed to consider this motionlessness natural.
It appeared certain, when you opened the door and saw the stairway filled with relentless, impersonal, colorless calm, a stairway that did not seem to have retained the slightest trace of the persons who had walked on it, not the slightest memory of their presence, when you stood behind the dining room window and looked at the house fronts, the shops, the old women and little children walking along the street, it seemed certain that, for as long as possible, she would have to wait, remain motionless like that, do nothing, not move, that the highest degree of comprehension, real intelligence, was that, to undertake nothing, keep as still as possible, do nothing.
At the most, by being careful not to wake anybody, you could go down without looking at the dark, dead, stairway, and proceed unobtrusively along the pavements, along the walls, just to get a breath, to move about a bit, without knowing where you were going, without wanting to go anywhere, and then come back home, sit down on the edge of the bed and, once more, wait, curled up, motionless.
In the morning she leapt from her bed early, dashed about the apartment, tart, tense, bursting with shouts and gestures, with gasps of anger, with “scenes.” She went from room to room, nosed about in the kitchen, banged furiously on the door of the bathroom which someone was occupying, and she wanted to break in, to manage, to give them a shaking, to ask them if they were going to stay in there for an hour, or remind them that it was late, that they were going to miss the car or the train, it was too late, that they had already missed something because of their carelessness, their negligence, or that their breakfast was ready, that it was cold, that it had been waiting for two hours, that it was stone-cold .Â .Â . And it seemed that from her viewpoint there was nothing uglier, more contemptible, more stupid, more hateful, that there was no more obvious sign of inferiority, of weakness, than to let one's breakfast grow cold, than to come late for breakfast.
Those who were in the secret, the children, came running. The others, who were careless and negligent towards things, being unaware of their power in this house, answered politely, in a perfectly natural, gentle manner: “Thank you very much, don't bother, I rather like coffee that's a little cold.” To these persons, these outsiders, she did not dare say anything, and because of this one statement, because of this little polite sentence with which they rebuffed her gently, negligently, with a flick of the hand, without even taking her into consideration, without pausing to give her a moment's thought, for this alone she began to hate them.
Things! Things! They were her strength. The source of her power. The implement she used, in her instinctive, infallible, sure way, for triumph, for crushing defeat.
When you lived with her, you were a prisoner of things, a cringing slave burdened with them, dull and dreary, continually being spied upon, tracked down by them.
Things. Objects. Bells that rang. Things that should not be neglected. People who should not be kept waiting. She used them like a pack of hounds that she kept turning on them:
“There's the bell! There's the bell! Hurry, quick, quick, somebody is waiting for you.” Even when they were hidden, shut up in their rooms, she made them leap up: “Somebody called you. Didn't you hear them? The telephone. The door. There's a draft. You didn't shut the door, the front door!” A door had slammed. A window had blown open. A breath of air had crossed the room. You had to rush, quick, quick, berated, browbeaten, apprehensive, drop everything and rush forward, ready to serve.