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Authors: Nathalie Sarraute

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BOOK: Tropisms
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.

VII

Not before him above all, not before him, later, when he will not be there, but not now. It would be too dangerous, too indecorous to talk about that before him.

She kept her ears open, intervened so he would not hear, kept on talking herself, tried to divert his attention: “The depression . . . and this increasing unemployment. Of course, to him that was clear, he being so conversant with these matters . . . But she didn't know . . . However, she had been told . . . But he was right, when you thought about it, everything became so obvious, so simple . . . It was curious, heartbreaking to see the
naïveté
of so many worthy people.” Everything went well. He seemed pleased. Drinking his tea the while, he was explaining things in that indulgent way of his, quite sure of himself, and from time to time, wrinkling his cheek and pressing his tongue against his back teeth to dislodge a bit of food stuck in them, he would make a peculiar noise, a sort of whistle which, with him, always had a little satisfied, carefree note.

But in spite of all her efforts, there occurred an occasional silence. Someone, turning towards her, asked if she had been to see the Van Goghs.

“Yes, yes, of course, she had seen the exhibition (it was nothing, he should pay no attention, it was nothing, she would thrust all that aside with a simple flick of the hand), she had been there on one of those Sunday afternoons when you never know what to do. Of course, it was very good.”

Enough, now that's enough, this would have to stop, did these people sense nothing, after all, hadn't they seen that he was there, that he was listening? She was afraid . . . But they took no notice of this, they kept on.

Well, since they insisted, since she was unable to restrain them—then they should be allowed to come in. So much the worse for them, let them come in for a moment. Van Gogh, Utrillo, or any other.

She would stand in front of them to try and hide them a bit so they would not come too far forward, as little as possible, there, they should walk docilely to one side, clinging to the wall. There, there, it was nothing, he could look at them calmly. Utrillo was drunk, he had just left the Saint Anne hospital, and Van Gogh . . . Ah! she gave him a thousand guesses, but he would never suspect what Van Gogh was holding in that paper. He was holding in that paper . . . his severed ear! “Man with Severed Ear,” of course, he was familiar with that? You saw it everywhere now. And so . . . That was all there was to it. He wasn't angry? He was not going to rise, thrust her brutally aside, walk towards them with a shifty, shamefaced expression, his upper lip twisted in a mean, hideous grimace?

No, no, she was wrong to be anxious. He understood very well. He was indulgent, amused. Wrinkling his cheek, he gave his little whistle, and in the depths of his eyes could still be seen the reflection of gaiety, the gleam that expressed a quiet feeling of certainty, of calm security, of contentment.

.

VIII

When he was with fresh, young creatures, innocent creatures, he felt an aching, irresistible need to manipulate them with his uneasy fingers, to feel them, to bring them as close to him as possible, to appropriate them for himself.

Whenever he happened to go out with one of them, whenever he took one of them “walking,” as they crossed the street he squeezed tight the little hand in his own hot grasp, restraining himself so as not to crush the tiny fingers, while he crossed over, looking with extreme prudence to the left then to the right, to be sure that they had time to reach the other side, to see if there was not a car coming, so that his little darling, his precious little child, this living, tender, confident little thing for which he was responsible, should not be run over.

And he taught it, when crossing, to wait a long while, to look carefully, carefully, carefully, above all very carefully, when crossing the streets between the lines, because “it doesn't take much, because one second of carelessness is enough for an accident to happen.” And he also liked to talk to them about his age, about his advanced age and his death. “What will you say when you won't have any more grandfather, he'll be gone, your grandfather will, because he's old, you know, very old, it will soon be time for him to die. Do you know what people do when they die? Your grandfather too had a mamma once. But where is she now? Yes! Yes! Where is she now, darling? She's gone, he hasn't any more mamma, she's been dead a long time, his mamma has, she's gone, there's no more mamma, she's dead.”

The air was still and gray, odorless, and the houses rose up on either side of the street, the flat masses of the houses, closed and dreary, surrounded them as they proceeded slowly along the pavement, hand in hand. And the child felt that something was weighing upon him, benumbing him. A soft choking mass that somebody relentlessly made him take, by exerting upon him a gentle, firm pressure, by pinching his nose a bit to make him swallow it, without his being able to resist—penetrated him, while he trotted docilely along, like a good little boy, obediently holding out his little hand, nodding his head very reasonably, while it was explained to him that he should always proceed cautiously and look well, first to the right, then to the left, and be careful, very careful, for fear of an accident, when crossing between the lines.

.

IX

She was sitting crouched on a corner of the chair, squirming, her neck outstretched, her eyes bulging: “Yes, yes, yes, yes,” she said, and she confirmed each part of the sentence with a jerk of her head. She was frightening, mild and flat, quite smooth, and only her eyes were bulging. There was something distressing, disquieting about her and her mildness was threatening.

He felt that she should be set straight, soothed, at any cost, but that only someone endowed with superhuman strength would be able to do it, someone who would have the nerve to remain there opposite her, comfortably seated, well-settled in another chair, who would dare to look her calmly in the face, catch her eye, not divert his own from her squirming. “Well, then! And how are you?” He would dare to do that. “Well, then! How do you feel?” he would dare to say that to her— and then he would wait. She should speak, make a move, show her real self, let it come out, let it finally explode—that wouldn't frighten him.

But he would never have the strength to do this. So he was obliged to check it as long as possible, to keep it from coming out, from spurting from her, curb it in her, at any cost, no matter how.

But what, then? What was it? He was afraid, he was on the verge of panic, he must not waste a second trying to reason it out, to think. And, as usual, as soon as he saw her, he assumed the role that, through compulsion, through threats, it seemed to him she forced him to assume. He started to talk, to talk without stopping, about just anybody, just any thing, tossing from side to side (like a snake at the sound of music? like birds in the presence of a boa? he no longer knew) he must hurry, hurry, without stopping, without a minute to lose, hurry, hurry, while there's still time, to restrain her, to placate her. Talk, but about what? about whom? about himself, why, about himself, the people around him, his friends, his family, their affairs, their troubles, their secrets, everything that had better remain hidden, but since that could interest her, since that might satisfy her, he must not hesitate, he must tell it to her, tell her everything, divest himself of everything, give her everything, as long as she remained there, crouching on the corner of the chair, all mild, flat, squirming.

.

X

In the afternoon they went out together, led the life that women lead. And what an extraordinary life it was! They went to “tearooms,” ate cakes, which they picked out daintily, in a slightly greedy manner: chocolate éclairs, “babas,” and tarts.

All about them was a chirping aviary, warm and gaily lighted and decorated. They remained there, seated, pressed close together around their little tables, talking.

There was a current of excitement and bustle about them, a slight disquiet filled with joy, the memory of a difficult choice, concerning which they were still not certain (would it go with the blue and gray outfit? Why of course, it would be perfect), the prospect of this metamorphosis, of this sudden enhancement of their personality, of this glamor.

They, they, they, they, always they, voracious, chirping, dainty.

Their faces seemed to be stiff with a sort of inner tension, their indifferent eyes skimmed lightly over the aspect, the mask of things, weighed it for a short second (was it pretty or ugly?) then let it drop. And their makeup gave them a hard brilliancy, a lifeless freshness.

They went to tearooms. They remained sitting there for hours, while entire afternoons slipped by. They talked: “They have awful scenes, disputes about nothing at all. I must say that he's the one I feel sorry for in it all. How much? Oh, at least two millions. And if only what she inherited from her Aunt Josephine . . . No . . . How could it? He won't marry her. What he needs is a good housewife, he doesn't realize it himself. Certainly not, I mean it. What he needs is a good housewife . . . Housewife . . . Housewife . . .” They had always heard it said, they knew it: the sentiments, love, life, these were their domain. It belonged to them.

And they talked and talked, repeating the same things, going over them, then going over them again, from one side then from the other, kneading and kneading them, continually rolling between their fingers this unsatisfactory, mean substance that they had extracted from their lives (what they called “life,” their domain), kneading it, pulling it, rolling it until it ceased to form anything between their fingers but a little pile, a little gray pellet.

.

XI

She had understood the secret. She had scented the hiding place of what should be the real treasure for everybody. She knew the “scale of values.”

No conversations about the shape of hats and Rémond fabrics for her. She had profound contempt for square-toed shoes.

Like a wood louse she had crawled insidiously towards them and maliciously found out about “the real thing,” like a cat that licks its chops and closes its eyes before a pitcher of cream it has discovered.

Now she knew it. She was going to stay there. They would never dislodge her from there again. She listened, she absorbed, greedy, voluptuous, rapacious. Nothing of what belonged to them was going to escape her: picture galleries, all the new books . . . She knew all that. She had begun with “Les Annales,” now she was veering towards Gide, soon she would be going to take notes, an eager, avid gleam in her eye, at meetings of the “Union for Truth.”

She ranged over all that, sniffed everywhere, picked up everything with her square-nailed fingers; as soon as anyone spoke vaguely of that anywhere, her eyes lighted up, she stretched out her neck, agog.

For them this was unutterably repellent. Hide it from her—quick—before she scents it, carries it away, preserve it from her degrading contact . . . But she foiled them, because she knew everything. The Chartres Cathedral could not be hidden from her. She knew all about it. She had read what Péguy had thought of it.

In the most secret recesses, among the treasures that were the best hidden, she rummaged about with her avid fingers. Everything “intellectual.” She had to have it. For her. For her, because she knew now the real value of things. She had to have what was intellectual.

There were a great many like her, hungry, pitiless parasites, leeches, firmly settled on the articles that appeared, slugs stuck everywhere, spreading their mucus on corners of Rimbaud, sucking on Mallarmé, lending one another
Ulysses
or the
Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge,
which they slimed with their low understanding.

“It's so beautiful,” she said, opening her eyes in which, with a pure, inspired expression, she kindled a “divine spark.”

.

XII

During his very well attended lectures at the Collège de France, he amused himself with all that.

He enjoyed prying, with the dignity of professional gestures, with relentless, expert hands, into the secret places of Proust or Rimbaud, then, exposing their so-called miracles, their mysteries, to the gaze of his very attentive audience, he would explain their “case.”

With his sharp, mischievous little eyes, his ready-tied necktie and his square-trimmed beard, he looked enormously like the gentleman in the advertisements who, with one finger in the air, smilingly recommends Saponite, the best of soap powders, or the model Salamander: economy, security, comfort.

“There is nothing,” he said, “you see I went to look for myself, because I won't be bluffed; nothing that I myself have not already studied clinically countless times, that I have not catalogued and explained.

“They should not upset you. Look, in my hands they are like trembling, nude little children, and I am holding them up to you in the hollow of my hand, as though I were their creator, their father, I have emptied them for you of their power and their mystery. I have tracked down, harried what was miraculous about them.

“Now they hardly differ from the intelligent, curious and amusing eccentrics who come and tell me their interminable stories, to get me to help them, appreciate them, and reassure them.

“You can no more be affected than my daughters are when they entertain their girl friends in their mother's parlor, and chatter and laugh gaily without being concerned with what I am saying to my patients in the next room.”

This was what he taught at the Collège de France. And in the entire neighborhood, in all the nearby Faculties, in the literature, law, history and philosophy courses, at the Institute and at the Palais de Justice, in the buses, the
métros
, in all the government offices, sensible men, normal men, active men, worthy, wholesome, strong men, triumphed.

BOOK: Tropisms
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