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Authors: Nathalie Sarraute

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BOOK: Tropisms
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Avoiding the shops filled with pretty things, the women trotting briskly along, the café waiters, the medical students, the traffic policemen, the clerks from notary offices, Rimbaud or Proust, having been torn from life, cast out from life and deprived of support, were probably wandering aimlessly through the streets, or dozing away, their heads resting on their chests, in some dusty public square.

.

XII

They could be seen walking in front of the shop windows, the upper part of their bodies very erect, slightly thrust forward, their stiff legs a bit apart, and their small feet, arched above their very high heels, knocking hard against the pavement.

With their handbags under their arms, their gauntlet gloves, their little regulation “bibis” at just the right angle on their heads, their long stiff lashes set in bulging lids, their hard eyes, they trotted along in front of the shop windows, stopped all of a sudden, ferreted about with an avid, knowing look.

Very valiantly, for they had great powers of endurance, they had been hunting in all the shops for a “little sport suit,” in heavy tweed with a pattern, “a sort of little pattern, I can see it perfectly, with little gray and blue checks . . . Oh! you haven't any! Where can I get it?” and they had resumed their hunt.

That little blue suit . . . that little gray suit . . . their wide-stretched eyes ferreted about in search of it . . . Little by little it took stronger hold of them, it engrossed them imperatively, became indispensable, became an end in itself, they no longer knew why, but which they felt obliged to achieve at any cost.

Bravely they went trotting about, climbed four or five flights of dark stairs (nothing could stop them now) “to firms that specialized in English tweeds, where you were sure to find it” and, a bit annoyed, they were beginning to grow weary (they were about to lose heart), they begged: “No, no, no, you know perfectly what I mean, with sort of little checks, and diagonal stripes . . . No, that's not it, that's not it at all . . . Oh, dear! you haven't got it? Where on earth am I going to find it? I've looked everywhere . . . Oh, there, perhaps? You think so? Very well. I'll go there . . . Good-bye . . . Yes, of course, I'm extremely sorry, yes I'll come again . . .”; and they smiled nevertheless, pleasantly, well-bred, having been well trained, during the many years when they were still hunting with their mothers, to figure out how to “dress on nothing,” “because a young girl needs so many things, in any case, and you have to know how to manage.”

.

XIV

Although she always remained silent and apart, her head bowed modestly, counting her stitches under her breath, “one knit, purl three, now then an entire row knit,” so feminine, so unobtrusive (“don't mind me, I'm quite all right like this, I don't want anything for myself”), they constantly sensed, as though in a tender spot on their own flesh, her presence.

Invariably concentrated on her, as though fascinated, they observed with terror every word, the slightest intonation, the subtlest shading, every gesture, every look; they walked on their toes, turning round at the slightest noise, for they knew that there were mysterious places everywhere, dangerous places that they should not bump into, not graze, otherwise, at the slightest contact, as in one of Hoffmann's tales, little bells, thousands of little bells with a clear tinkle, like her maiden's voice—would start ringing.

But at times, in spite of all these precautions, all this effort, when they saw her sitting silent in the lamplight, looking like some frail, gentle underseas plant, entirely lined with mobile suckers, they felt themselves slip and fall with all their weight, crushing everything beneath them: then there issued from them stupid jokes, sneers, frightful stories of cannibals, all this issued from them and burst out without their being able to check it. And she coiled up gently—oh! it was too awful!—dreaming of her little room, of her beloved refuge to which she would soon go and kneel down on her bedside rug, in her batiste gown gathered at the neck, so childlike, so pure, a little Thérèse de Lisieux, Saint Catherine, Saint Blandina . . . and holding tightly the little gold chain about her neck, she would pray for their sins.

Sometimes, too, when everything went very well, when she curled up all excited, sensing that they were about to embark on one of those questions she so loved, when they were sincerely, seriously discussed, they would slip away, pirouetting like clowns, their faces stretched in idiotic, horrible grins.

.

XV

She so loved old gentlemen like him, with whom you could talk, they understood so many things, they knew all about life, they had associated with interesting people (she knew that he had been a friend of Félix Faure and that he had once kissed Empress Eugénie's hand).

When he came to dine with her parents, very much the child, deference itself (he was so learned), slightly awed, but all of a twitter (it would be so instructive to hear his views), she preceded the others to the salon, to keep him company.

He rose laboriously: “Well, well! So there you are! And how are you? And how is everything going? And what are you doing? What are you doing that's nice this year? Ah! So you're going back to England? Indeed?”

She was going back. Really, she loved the country so much. The English, when you knew them . . .

But he interrupted her: “England . . . Ah, yes, England . . . Shakespeare, eh? Eh? Shakespeare. Dickens. I remember, by the way, when I was young, I amused myself translating Dickens. Thackeray. Have you read Thackeray? Th . . . Th . . . Is that how they pronounce it? Eh? Thackeray? Is that it? Is that the way they say it? . . .”

He had grabbed her and was holding her entirely in his fist. He watched her as she flung herself about a bit, as she struggled awkwardly, childishly kicking her little feet in the air, while maintaining a pleasant smile: “Why yes, I think it's like that. Yes. You pronounce well. Indeed, the t-h . . . Tha . . . Thackeray . . . Yes, that's it. Why of course I've read
Vanity Fair.
Oh, yes, it's by him all right.”

He turned her round a bit, the better to see her:
“Vanity Fair? Vanity Fair?
Ah! yes, you're sure of that?
Vanity Fair?
It's by him?”

She continued to wriggle gently, still wearing her polite little smile, her expression of eager expectation. He squeezed harder and harder: “And by which route will you go? Via Dover? Via Calais? Dover? Eh? Via Dover? Is that it? Dover?”

There was no way to escape. No way to stop him. She who had read so widely . . . who had thought about so many things . . . He could be so charming . . . But it was one of his bad days, he was in one of his strange moods. He would keep on, without pity, without respite; “Dover, Dover, Dover? Eh? Eh? Dover? Thackeray? England? Dickens? Shakespeare? Eh? Eh? Dover?” while she would try to free herself gently, without daring to make any sudden movement that might displease him, and answer respectfully in a faint voice that was just a bit husky: “Yes, Dover, that's it. You must have traveled that way often . . . I believe it's more convenient via Dover. Yes, that's it . . . Dover.”

Not until he saw her parents arrive, would he come to himself, would he relax his grip, and a bit red, a bit disheveled, her pretty dress a bit mussed, she would finally dare, without fearing to displease him, escape.

.

XVI

Now they were old, they were quite worn out, “like old furniture that has seen long usage, that has served its time and accomplished its task,” and sometimes (this was coyness on their part) they heaved a sort of short sigh, filled with resignation and relief, that was like something crackling.

On soft spring evenings, they went walking together, “now that youth was finished, now that the passions were spent,” they went walking quietly, “to take a breath of fresh air before going to bed,” sit down in a café, spent a few moments chatting.

They chose a well protected corner, taking many precautions (“not here, it's in a draft, nor there, it's just beside the lavatory”), they sat down—“Ah! these old bones, we're getting old. Ah! Ah!”—and they let them be heard cracking.

The place had a cold, dingy glitter, the waiters ran about too fast in a rough, indifferent manner, the mirrors gave back harsh reflections of tired faces and blinking eyes.

But they asked for nothing more, this was it, they knew it well, you shouldn't expect anything, you shouldn't demand anything, that's how it was, there was nothing more, this was it, “life.”

Nothing else, nothing more, here or there, now they knew it.

You should not rebel, dream, hope, make an effort, flee, you had only to choose carefully (the waiter was waiting) whether it was to be a grenadine or a coffee? with milk or black? while accepting unassumingly to live—here or there—and let time go by.

.

XVII

When the weather began to be fine, on holidays they would go walking in the suburban woods.

The scrubby underbrush was dotted with crossroads onto which straight paths converged symmetrically. The grass was sparse and trampled upon, but on the branches new leaves were beginning to appear; they had succeeded in communicating none of their luster to their surroundings, and looked like the children with slightly sourish smiles that one sees wrinkling their faces to the sun in hospital wards.

They lunched seated on the side of the road, or else in a bare clearing. They appeared to see nothing, they dominated all that, the thin bird notes, the guilty-looking shoots, the trodden grass: the dense atmosphere in which they usually lived surrounded them here too, rose up from them like a heavy, acrid vapor.

They had brought with them the companion of their free time, their lonely little child.

When the child saw them begin to settle in the spot they had chosen, he unfolded his little camp stool, set it alongside them and, squatting down on it, began to rake the ground, making piles of dry leaves and pebbles.

Their talk, mingled with the disturbing odors of this sickly spring, filled with shadows in which confused forms were moving, enveloped him.

The air was dense, as though gummy with wet dust and saps; it clung to him, stuck to his skin, to his eyes.

He refused to go far from them to play with other children on the grass. He remained glued there and, filled with a sort of doleful avidity, absorbed what they said.

.

XVIII

On the outskirts of London, in a little cottage with percale curtains, its little back lawn sunny and all wet with rain.

The big, wisteria-framed window in the studio, opens on to this lawn.

A cat with its eyes closed, is seated quite erect on the warm stone.

A spinster lady with white hair, and pink cheeks that tend towards purple, is reading an English magazine in front of the door.

She sits there, very stiff, very dignified, quite sure of herself and of others, firmly settled in her little universe. She knows that in a few moments the bell will ring for tea.

Down below, the cook, Ada, is cleaning vegetables at a table covered with white oilcloth. Her face is motionless, she appears to be thinking of nothing. She knows that it will soon be time to toast the buns, and ring the bell for tea.

.

XIX

He was smooth and flat, two level surfaces—his cheeks which he presented first to one then to the other, and upon which, with their pursed lips, they pressed a kiss.

They took him and they crunched him, turned him over and over, stamped on him, rolled, wallowed on him. They made him go round and round, there, and there, and there, they showed him disquieting painted scenery with blind doors and windows, towards which he walked credulously, and against which he bumped and hurt himself.

They had always known how to possess him entirely, without leaving him a fresh spot, without a moment's respite, how to devour him to the last crumb. They surveyed him, cut him up into dreadful building lots, into squares, traversed him in every direction; sometimes they let him run, turned him loose, but they brought him back as soon as he went too far, they took possession of him again. He had developed a taste for this devouring in childhood—he tendered himself, relished their bittersweet odor, offered himself.

The world in which they had enclosed him, in which they surrounded him on every side, was without issue. Everywhere their frightful clarity, their blinding light that leveled everything, did away with all shadows and asperities.

They were aware of his liking for their attacks, his weakness, so they had no scruples.

They had emptied him entirely and restuffed him and they showed him everywhere other dolls, other puppets. He could not escape them. He could only turn politely towards them the two smooth surfaces of his cheeks, one after the other, for them to kiss.

.

XX

When he was little, he used to sit straight up in bed at night, call out. They would come running, light the light, they would take the white linens, the towels, the clothes, in their hands, and show them to him. There was nothing. In their hands the white linens became harmless, shrank, they became set and dead in the light.

Now that he was grown, he still made them come and look everywhere, hunt inside him, observe well and take in their hands the fears cowering in the nooks and corners inside him, and examine them in the light.

They were accustomed to coming in and looking, and he prepared the way for them, he himself lighted all the lights so as not to sense their hands groping about in the dark. They looked—he remained motionless, without daring to breathe—but there was nothing anywhere, nothing that could cause fear, everything seemed in good order, in place, they recognized everywhere familiar, well-known objects, and they showed them to him. There was nothing. What was he afraid of? At times, here or there, in a corner, something seemed to tremble vaguely, to waver slightly, but with a pat they set it straight again, it was nothing, one of his usual fears—they took it and showed it to him: his friend's daughter was already married? Was that it? Or else, so-and-so, who although he was a former classmate of his, had been promoted, was to be decorated? They repaired, they righted that, it was nothing. For a moment, he believed he felt stronger, propped up, patched up, but already he sensed his legs and arms grow heavy, lifeless, become numb with this solidified waiting, he had, as one has before losing consciousness, a tingling sensation in his nostrils: they saw him withdraw into himself all of a sudden, assume his strangely preoccupied, absent look: then, with little pats on his cheeks—the Windsors' travels, Lebrun, the quintuplets—they revived him.

BOOK: Tropisms
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