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Authors: Nathalie Sarraute

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BOOK: Tropisms
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But while he was coming to himself and when they left him finally mended, cleaned, repaired, all nicely seasoned and ready, fear formed in him again, at the bottom of the little compartments, of the little drawers they had just opened, in which they had seen nothing, and which they had closed.



In her black alpaca apron, with her cross pinned every week on her chest, she was an extremely “easy” little girl, a very docile, very good child: “Is this for children, Madame?” she would ask the stationery woman, if she was not sure, when buying a comic paper or a book.

She never could have, oh, no, for nothing on earth, already at that age, she could not have gone out of the shop with those eyes, the stationery woman's eyes, glued to her back, as she went to open the door to leave.

Now she was grown, little fish grow big, yes, indeed! time passes fast, oh! it's once you're past twenty that the years begin to fly by, faster and faster, isn't that so? They think that too? And she stood there before them in her black ensemble, which goes with everything, and besides, black always looks well, doesn't it? . . . she remained seated, her hands folded over her matching handbag, smiling, nodding her head sympathetically, of course she had heard, she knew that their grandmother's death had been a lingering one, it was because she had been so strong, they weren't like us, at her age, imagine, she still had all her teeth . . . And Madeleine? Her husband . . . Ah! men, if they could give birth to children, they would only have one, that's sure, they would never go through it a second time, her mother, poor woman, had always said so—oh! oh! fathers, sons, mothers!—the eldest was a girl, and they had wanted to have a son first, no, no, it was too soon, she must not stand up already, not leave, she was not going to separate from them, she was going to stay there, near them, quite near, as near as possible, of course she understood, it's so nice to have an older brother, she shook her head, smiled, oh, not her, first, oh! no, they could be quite assured, she would not move, oh, no, not her, she would never break that up all of a sudden. Remain silent, look at them; and right in the middle of the grandmother's illness, rise and, making an enormous hole, escape, knocking against the lacerated walls, and run shouting amidst the crouched houses standing watch all along the gray streets, flee, stepping over the feet of the concierges seated in front of their doors taking the air, run with her mouth contorted shouting incoherences, while the concierges looked up from their knitting and their husbands lowered their newspapers to their knees, to press their gaze the length of her back, until she had turned the corner.



Sometimes, when they were not looking at him, to try and find something that was warm and living around him, he would run his hand very gently along one of the columns of the sideboard . . . they would not see him, or perhaps they would think that he was merely “touching wood” for luck, a very widespread custom and, after all, a harmless one.

When he sensed that they were watching him from behind, like the villain in the movies who, feeling the eyes of the policeman on his back, concludes his gesture nonchalantly, gives it the appearance of being offhanded and naïve, to calm their apprehension he would drum with three fingers of his right hand, three times three, which is the really effectual lucky gesture. For they were watching him more closely since he had been caught in his room, reading the Bible.

Objects, too, were very wary of him and had been for a long time, ever since, as a little child, he had begged their favor, had tried to attach himself to them, to cling to them, to warm himself, they had refused to “play,” to become what he had wanted to make of them, “poetic memories of childhood.” They had been brought to heel, these objects had, being well trained, they had the unobtrusive, anonymous look of well-schooled servants; they knew their place and they refused to answer him, out of fear, no doubt, of being dismissed.

But with the exception, very rarely, of this timid little gesture, he really took no liberties of any kind. He had succeeded, little by little, in gaining control over all his stupid little manias, in fact, he had fewer of them now than were normally tolerated; he didn't even collect postage stamps—which normal people did, for all to see. He never stopped in the middle of the street to look—the way he had once done, on his walks, when the nursemaid, come along, will you! come along! had had to drag him—he crossed quickly and never held up street traffic; he walked by objects, even the most hospitable, even the most alive of them, without casting a single look of complicity in their direction.

In short, the very ones among his friends and relations who were keen about psychiatry had nothing to reproach him with, unless, perhaps, in view of his lack of inoffensive, relaxing whims, in view of his too obedient conformity, it were a slight tendency towards asthenia.

But they tolerated that; all things considered, it was less dangerous, less indecorous.

From time to time only, when he felt too weary, on their advice, he took the liberty of going away alone on a little trip. And there, when he went walking at nightfall, in the quiet little snowy streets that were filled with a gentle indulgence, he would run his hands lightly over the red and white bricks of the houses and, clinging to the wall, sidewise, through fear of being indiscreet, he would look through the clear panes into downstairs rooms in which green plants on china saucers had been set in the window, and from where, warm, full, heavy with a mysterious denseness, objects tossed him a small part—to him too, although he was unknown and a stranger—of their radiance; where the corners of a table, the door of a sideboard, the straw seat of a chair emerged from the half-light and consented to become for him, mercifully for him, too, since he was standing there waiting, a little bit of his childhood.



They were ugly, they were dull, commonplace, without personality, they were really too out-of-date, clichés, she thought, which she had already seen described everywhere, so many times, in the works of Balzac, of Maupassant, in
Madame Bovary,
clichés, copies, copies of copies, she decided.

She would have so liked to repulse them, seize them and hurl them away. But they stood quietly about her, they smiled at her, pleasantly, but dignifiedly, very decorously, they had been working all week, all their lives they had counted on nobody but themselves, they asked for nothing, except to see her from time to time; to rearrange a little the tie between them and her, feel that it was there, still in place, the tie that bound them to her. They wanted nothing more than to ask her—as was natural, as everybody did, when they went to call on friends, or on relatives—to ask her what she had been doing that was nice, if she had been reading a lot lately, if she had gone out often, if she had seen that, didn't she think those films were good . . . They, themselves, had so enjoyed Michel Simon, Jouvet, they had laughed so hard, had had such a delightful evening . . .

And as for all that, clichés, copies, Balzac, Flaubert,
Madame Bovary,
oh! they knew very well, they were acquainted with it all, but they were not afraid—they looked at her kindly, they smiled, they seemed to feel that they were safe with her, they seemed to know that they had been observed, depicted, described so often, been so sucked on, that they had become as smooth as pebbles, all shiny, without a nick, without a single hold. She could not get at them. They were safe.

They surrounded her, held out their hands to her: “Michel Simon . . . Jouvet . . . Ah! she had been obliged to book seats well ahead of time, had she not . . . Later, there would have been no tickets to be had, except at exorbitant prices, nothing but boxes, or in the orchestra . . .” They tightened the tie a little more, very gently, unobtrusively, without hurting her, they rearranged the slender tie, pulled . . .

And little by little a certain weakness, a certain slackness, a need to approach them, to have them approach her, made her join in the game with them. She sensed how docilely (Oh! yes . . . Michel Simon . . . Jouvet . . .) very docilely, like a good, amenable little girl, she gave them her hand and walked in a ring with them.

Ah! here we are at last all together, good as gold, doing what our parents would have approved of, here we all are then, well behaved, singing together like good little children that an invisible adult is looking after, while they walk gently around in a circle giving one another their sad, moist little hands.



They were rarely to be seen, they remained buried in their apartments, shut up in their dark rooms, watching and waiting.

They telephoned to one another, ferreted about, called back again, seized upon the slightest indication, the slightest sign.

Some of them took delight in cutting out the newspaper advertisement according to which his mother was looking for a seamstress to sew by the day.

They remembered everything, they kept jealous watch; holding hands in a tight ring, they surrounded him.

Their humble brotherhood, with its half-obliterated, dimmed faces, stood about him in a circle.

And when they saw him crawling shamefacedly to try and slip in among them, they quickly lowered their entwined hands, and crouching down all together around him, they fixed upon him their empty, dogged eyes, they smiled their slightly childish smile.



Nathalie Sarraute

“Sarraute has cracked open the ‘smooth and hard' surface of the traditional characters in order to discover the endless vibrations of moods and sentiments, the tremors of a never-ending series of earthquakes in the microcosm of the self.”

—Hannah Arendt,
The New York Review of Books

is her form! Her texture is anti-novelistic, though she's decided to write ‘novels' and launched an important critique of the novel on the basis of her method.”

—Susan Sontag

Awarded the Prix International de Littérature, Nathalie Sarraute (1900–1999) was one of the leaders of the Nouveau Roman, along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, and Michel Butor. She wrote eleven novels, several collections of essays, stories, plays, and an autobiography,
, which was adapted into a one-act play starring Glenn Close. Her first work,
was published in 1939 and has been hailed as a masterpiece by Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, Hannah Arendt, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The writer and activist Maria Jolas (1893–1987) was one of the founding members of the influential expat literary maga­zine

Copyright © Les Éditions de Minuit, 1957

Translation copyright © John Calder, Ltd., 1963

All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, television, or website review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher.

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BOOK: Tropisms
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