A Conversation With Nathalie Sarraute
IT IS NOT often that a writer lives to see her works regarded as a significant advancement in the development of a literary genre. But this distinction has not been denied French novelist Nathalie Sarraute, whose work has accomplished a severance with pre-existing regulations and limitations of the novel. Ms. Sarraute’s work, well known in France and now being translated and read abroad, has been one of the strongest creative influences on the New Novel movement in France, a movement held together not so much by stylistic agreement as by a common renouncement of accepted literary forms.
Ms. Sarraute’s first contribution to the renaissance of the novel was the work Tropisms (Tropismes), started in 1932. Although Tropisms was quietly received upon publication in 1939, its second edition as well as her treatise on the fate of the novel, The Age of Suspicion (L’Ere du soupcon, 1956), have served as focal points in the development of the New Novel. her other novels, Portait of an Unknown (Portrait d’un inconnu, 1948), Martereau (1953), The Planetarium (Le Planétarium, 1959), The Golden Fruits (Les Fuits d’or, 1963), and Between Life and Death (Entre la vie et la mort, 1969), as well as various plays and collections of essays, have caused a considerable impact on French literature.
In her work, Ms. Sarraute demands more of the reader than the passive attention usually involved in the traditional novel. As a result, her works, for the inattentive, inexperienced or lazy reader may bring about a terrifying sense of disequilibrium. Meticulously developed characters evolving through clearly delineated situations are not to be encountered. One finds, rather, a narrative line worn ragged and eventually annihilated by raw emotional movements, under the guise of sentence arrangements, darting back and forth, interrupting the dialogue, refusing to show a traditional narrative voice. These quasi-emotions are the tropisms central to Sarraute’s art. They are the involuntary movement of our emotions before we recognize them as emotions or as thoughts.
Ms. Sarraute’s themes and metaphors concern the manipulation and latent aggression present between individuals. We are portrayed as beings who act only in the light of how others would judge our actions. Indeed, Ms. Sarraute’s work reinforces the ideas of her existential contemporaries. After having read such works as Tropisms or The Golden Fruits, one will be all too aware of existing under the regard of others.
Ms. Sarraute challenges the modern reader to forget what he has been conditioned to expect in a novel and to approach her works as acts calling for creative reading. She informs us, totally unapologetically, that we can no longer afford to be lazy readers, empty receptacles waiting to be filled. The following interview explores further the nature of her views. —Ruth Ann Halicks
Ruth Ann Halicks: It seems that even in the 1930s when you wrote your first book, Tropisms (Tropismes), you had already found your own voice, and your own style. What are the literary, social and political currents that have influenced your development.
Nathalie Sarraute: Social and political currents — there were none. Literary currents that influenced me go back to Flaubert, Madame Bovary, to Dosotevsky, and later to Proust and Joyce.
RH: Could you explain the effect these writers had?
Sarraute: After the appearance of Proust and Joyce, there came about a huge upheaval in literature. I must also mention Virginia Woolf, who not only wrote very modern things, she also had ideas on the transformation of the novel. She made a strong impression on me. So when I began to write, I felt that one could no longer imitate these writers, one couldn’t imitate the classics. As a result, I had to look for something, a substance, a form that belonged to me personally. These writers had shown us that the framework of the old novel could no longer meet modern needs, and I thought that it would be interesting — actually I didn’t even think about it, I did it without thinking — to show interior movements existing all alone, without characters, without a plot.
RH: These are called tropisms?
Sarraute: These are called tropisms because they are instinctive movements taking place on the subconscious level that are provoked like plant tropisms, which are provoked by external stimuli, by exterior objects.
RH: There were no other influences? I was thinking of social influences, perhaps what was going on in the world.
Sarraute: No. Because what I write has a absolutely nothing to do with social or political events, whatever they might be. No more than in the work of Proust. It’s totally removed from that. These are simply the seekings of art that have nothing to do with sociological novels. This is not littérature engagée.
RH: In your works you seem to emphasize psychology, but you are very far removed from the traditional psychological novel.
Sarraute: It’s not exactly psychology because when you say psychology, you think immediately of the classic categories of psychology. That is something very out-of-date — to analyse feelings, etc. Mine is rather a mental universe where psychological terms are not introduced. What my characters experience, what happens — let’s say jealousy or love — occurs before the feelings. I show something that happens inside ourselves, in the midst of happening, something I don’t analyse. In the psychological novel, there are analyses of one’s feelings. In my work, there are movements that are not named, which do not enter into the category of psychology. These are interior movements at the moment that we experience them.
RH: How do you react to the accusation that the novel is dead?
Sarraute: I have often heard this accusation that the novel is dead. Bretson said it in 1925. But I see novels produced, I don’t know how many a week, in France. I have the impression it’s carrying along quite well.
RH: But it’s true that in your work the novelistic character no longer exists.
Sarraute: The character, in my point of view, exists only as a deception, a facade; all that counts are the interior movements. In my later works even the facade of characters no longer exists: there are only consciousness where these tropisms are produced.
RH: But if one destroys the characters and the narration, where can the novel go?
Sarraute: The character is only a certain form. One can imagine other forms. When Balzac wanted to describe a tightwad, he conceived of the form of Pierre Grandet, into which he put stinginess. As when Chardin wanted to show the color yellow, he showed it in a lemon. One can perfectly admit that one may free oneself of the characters in order to show the movements into stinginess, in and of itself, produced in various characters. It’s not always obligatory to have characters. In my work, the characters don’t exist. They don’t present any interest, because what we experience, we all experience, you as well as I. What is the use of showing the character. That distorts things. When you read Madame Bovary, you say to yourself, “That’s true,” because you feel the same thing in another life, in a totally different society. In modern art, in the modern novel, it’s not necessary to show the wife of a provincial doctor, etc., because you, who are here in Bloomington, feel the same thing. Thus, it’s necessary to show the feeling, the thing in its pure state. Even Flaubert said, “If I could do away with all that, to show the thing by itself.”
RH: Then you think the novel is going to continue to seek…
Sarraute: I think we will look in all directions. Perhaps we’ll return to a particular character, but transformed. I think the novel moves like all the arts. It’s transforming itself all the time.
RH: What are you working on right now?
Sarraute: I have just finished a short book, like Tropisms, although each section is longer than in Tropisms, and which plays with certain expressions or certain phrases. What happens, and why, when we say something. Everything that happens, for example, when you say the word “love.” What happens before the word is pronounced, and then, when the word arrives, the transformation caused by this simple word. The book is called L’Usage de la parole. It is going to come out in the first of 1980.
Daniel Bourne: Do you have any misgivings at turning people away from the content of your writing because of its form?
Sarraute: Of course I have misgivings. I’ve always had them. As long as the readers are still searching for the character, and for a plot, sometimes they miss what I’ve tried to show them, because they are trying to see if the characters are married, who said what, are they the same people who spoke in the first chapter, when I don’t care. I put two people, maybe they’re brother and sister, maybe they’re anyone. I don’t care. The important thing is what they are saying, what they are feeling. But people try and see, “Oh, but it’s a married couple and they met in the first chapter.” They go on caring about things that I don’t care for.
DB: Do you feel that there has arisen, then, a sort of tension between the writer and the reader that occurs while a reader is going through a book?
Sarraute: There is a tension. I think it’s a good thing. I think when something is too easy, it’s bad. The reader doesn’t have to make an effort, he himself doesn’t have to create. But the reader has to be creative, when he’s reading. He has to try to make the thing alive. But if you give him something easy that’s just an amusement for him, he is gliding on the surface and not working. I think a good reader has to do a certain amount of work when he is reading.
RH: But all the same, there are readers who won’t make this effort.
Sarraute: Naturally there are readers like that. So what? One can’t write for all readers. For example, a poet cannot begin to write for people who don’t like poetry. He writes for a limited public who loves this type of thing, who are interested in it.
RH: In The Age of Suspicion (L’Ere du souppcon) you said that the masses could not be liberated while using traditional forms. Do you believe that your literature is a literature of liberation?
Sarraute: I am sure that all art, when it tries to go forward — when I speak of progress evidently it’s not a progress of quality; I don’t have the pretension to say that what I have written is better than Shakespeare or Dostoevsky — it’s a question of going elsewhere, of not copying the masters, of trying to look for something, good or bad, for oneself. To enter this liberated state of mind one cannot copy the others. One looks for something that is one’s own. This is already a liberating attitude for the mind. It can then turn to politics. For example, all the writers who have written New Novels, who have not at all written littérature engagée, signed a proclamation against the war in Algeria. Why? Because a free state of mind is non-conformist. People who want to transform society ought to have this spirit.
RH: You mentioned the New Novelists. Do you take part in this movement?
Sarraute: I have participated considerably in this movement because The Age of Suspicion was one of the foundations of the movement.
RH: You are still active in it?
Sarraute: It’s not a real group. We never see each other. Each one of us writes in his own fashion. What I write is almost the opposite of Robbe-Grillet’s writing because he describes exterior surfaces and I describe interior movements. In my work there are no fixed schematics, designs. On the contrary, it’s all movement, the opposite of Robbe-Grillet. But we have the same idea, that one has to do away with the characters and the plot, which always have been imposed by criticism.
RH: That is the goal of the New Novelists?
Sarraute: That’s it. It’s an attempt to get out of the rut of the traditional novel, which is doing quite well, in fact. It always receives the Prix Goncourt.
DB: Sigmund Freud wrote about the role of the writer, “Imaginative writers are valuable colleagues in the knowledge of the human heart, they draw on sources that we have not yet made accessible to science.”
Sarraute: I think he was quite right. I don’t admire Freud as much as some people do. But I do think this is perfectly true. There was much more in Hamlet, which he studied, than in all that he put in it. So I think of course he took his substance from literature, but it’s not the writers who have to take their substance from Freud. Imagine Shakespeare being aware of the Oedipal complex when he wrote Hamlet. It would have been a disaster. It’s lucky he didn’t know it existed. But for Freud it was very good to study Hamlet.
DB: Would you say that literature has continued to show the same force in psychological matters that it was showing around the time of Freud?
Sarraute: I’m sure it’s showing other things. It has to move. It cannot go on showing always the same things, and not as well, as the classics. So of course, literature is always trying to show other parts of this immense universe in which we live. It’s endless. I’m sure there will be other searchers and other new writers who will discover new worlds. No one could imagine before Joyce appeared that a new universe would be brought by him, the same with Kafka. I’m sure it will go on.
DB: So you feel then that we are definitely not at a dead end in literature. I know you feel that way, but many people have the opinion that…
Sarratue: I’m sure it’s a thing that people always said. 50 years ago they said it was finished. Breton and the surrealists said it’s finished, it’s impossible to write novels, and just a few years later Celine appeared with Voyage au bout de la nuit which was an extraordinary work in spite of his awful behavior during the Occupation. He was a very great writer.
RH: Returning to the subject of psychology, have your works been used in psychological research or therapy?
Sarraute: I don’t know.
RH: What do you think about that?
Sarraute: I think psychiatrists and psychoanalysts can use anything they find. They can, like Freud, draw on literature. The idea of ambivalence, I think, was first discovered in the works of Dostoevsky. It’s totally legitimate because he shows parts of psychological life which are not known. It’s totally normal that psychiatrists use literature as they use what they discover in their patients.
RH: What is your opinion of the use of the act of writing as a therapy for the mentally ill?
Sarraute: So much has been said: Flaubert said that when things were not going well and he wrote, things were better. The act of writing is a kind of catharsis, a liberation, but I never really concerned myself with that. I write because it interests me. I have never sought the reason why I write. Then again, all psychological research at the present time is completely barred by the interpretations of the psychoanalysts. Everything happens in the unconscious and I don’t know what this unconscious is. And the psychoanalysts always find the same thing for everyone. That stops absolutely all research. I think at the present time we have arrived at a sort of impasse with that sort of thinking. I do have the impression psychoanalysis is regressing.
RH: Recently a young American novelist, Rita Mae Brown, was in Bloomington. She said that the university provides a very bad ambiance for artistic creation. How do you feel about that?
Sarraute: On the contrary, teaching now is much more unrestrictive than before, not crushing as it used to be. I don’t see at all how it inhibits students, if they have a strong enough personality to fight against imposed ideas. Here students in general are left quite free in their intellectual pursuits. When I was in contact with students I was struck by the great freedom given them. They were able to say, “I don’t like that.” And they were saying, “I think that’s bad, and that’s that!” In my time it was absolutely impossible at the Sorbonne to say that Racine was worthless. We would have gotten a zero! And here the professor listens with respect when they say, “I don’t like that, I think that’s bad.”
RH: One has to have reasons…
Sarraute: As I am sure that one can’t write without having read — you have to read before beginning to write — and it seems to me universities offer a very good opportunity to read.
RH: You are writing during a period of feminism. What do you think of this movement and have you taken part in it?
Sarraute: I did take part in the feminist movement before the war when French women did not have the right to vote, when they were trying to fight in order to gain access to all professions. I believe in everything that is feminist when it has to do with equality of rights, the woman’s need to work, to make a living, to earn the same salary, to be helped to the maximum with her children by day-care centers, the collaboration of the father, etc. What I cannot follow is that women say they have a “nature,” a “feminine writing,” because I do not know what meaning that has. This aspect of the feminist movement I am absolutely against. I think it’s almost suicide on their part to say they are different, that they don’t know their own language well because it was made by men. To me that’s a total absurdity. Little girls talk as much as little boys. They are locking themselves into a sort of self-genocide, into a narcissism. They begin again and again to look at themselves in the mirror. This type of feminism totally excludes them from the masculine world where everything that has been created exists — in science, in philosophy, in music, in painting and even in literature. I don’t understand what they are trying to accomplish. But I think this is in the process of reversing. They have seen that they have locked themselves up with this feminist writing.
RH: I think they are looking for their own voice.
Sarraute: Yes, that’s it. They may be mistaken, but it’s better that they look for it rather than not to look at all.
RH: But I hope we will find something else.
Sarraute: Of course. What they ought to find is to have all the possibilities of developing their mind and their initiative which men have. For the moment, this is denied them from the time they are very small. They ought to be equal, but also from the intellectual point of view, from every point of view. They say they are different. Well, it’s a bad joke if they’re different — even from the scientific point of view. I ask myself, what is this feminine mind that has as yet done nothing, that is different? That’s a bad perspective. One has to say, on the contrary, I have the same mind but I have been prevented, or used to be prevented, from developing myself to the maximum. It’s true. It’s true because when I read, let’s say Baudelaire, who is a man, I read him better perhaps than most men, because I have a great sensitivity to him. The fact that I am a woman doesn’t play any role here. It’s an absurdity to say so because if it’s true, we shouldn’t even be able to read male authors as well as men! If they claim that the feminine mind is so different, women can hardly read anything.
DB: Are there any current American writers who attract your attention?
Sarraute: I really liked Faulkner, if I may go a little into the past. Contrary to most Americans, I find the works of Dos Passos noteworthy. I know that that shocks Americans because Dos Passos was very reactionary. I felt that he had found interesting things, interesting things in literature. Since then, naturally, I have read writers here, but they are very, very different from what I am doing. You see, I read them, they interest me a lot, because they’re full of life, because they show American life. And there are writers here who are also searching to get out of the ruts of the traditional novel, like Barth and Burroughs, who have always interested me.
DB: Do you feel that the little magazine has helped France during the 20th century in terms of literature?
Sarraute: Yes, certainly I think it has. The Nouvelle Revue Française had a great importance after the First World War and published most of the best writers at that time. Now we have several new magazines which try to find out new, young writers and publish them. And it keeps literature alive. It shows you all that’s going on. When you have read it, you know what’s happening, good or bad. It’s very important.
RH: In your opinion, what is the duty of the modern novelist?
Sarraute: I think it’s the same duty of all novelists, of all painters, of all musicians, of all people who try to make art move: to look for something they feel authentically, without paying attention to styles, without paying attention to theories: to cling to what they feel authentically, which will force them to find a form which will be theirs, which, consequently will be a living form, and not an academic and limited form.
RH: And if they’re not accepted?
Sarraute: But they don’t have to think about that when they begin to write. Baudelaire said, “I will impose my beauty on them.” He was not seeking to write something that would please the people of his time. He was writing something that he himself felt deep inside and for which he had found the form. Little did it matter if it pleased or not. Stendhal didn’t please. There are many writers who in their time were not at all followed.
(translated by Ruth Ann Halicks)
Return to Interviews