Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between 
by Ann Jefferson.
Princeton, 425 pp., £34, August 2020, 978 0 691 19787 6
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When I mentioned​ to a friend that I was going to review a biography of Nathalie Sarraute, his first question was: ‘Will she last?’ I hesitated to reply. First of all, it’s not clear what it means for a writer to ‘last’. Do we mean that she wrote books that will be read for pleasure for centuries, like Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina? Sarraute was too avant-garde – too highbrow – to compete with Austen in the popularity stakes. But if ‘Will she last?’ means ‘Will she always have a place in literary history?’ the answer is surely yes. From the 1960s until some time in the 1990s, students and academics read Sarraute (1900-99) as a standard-bearer for the so-called ‘new novel’ alongside Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008), Michel Butor (1926-2016) and Claude Simon (1913-2005). I am not sure that many people read any of them for pleasure these days. (In my more cynical moments, I don’t think anyone read them with much pleasure back then either.) We took for granted that the ‘new novel’ was crucially important, not least because it shared significant preoccupations with a new generation of theorists, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Both the new novelists and the new theorists detested Balzacian realism and psychological character studies, and embraced a formalist view of language, embedded in an anti-humanist view of subjectivity.

These otherwise disparate intellectuals may have seemed more alike than they were, for they were united by a common enemy: existentialism. Sartre and Beauvoir and their adherents dominated the immediate postwar period in France. The new writers and theorists would have to slay the existentialist dragon. They accused the existentialists of embracing a naive view of language and equally naive ideas about freedom and authenticity. Worst of all, in the eyes of the new generation, the existentialists kept harping on the political responsibilities of writers by pushing the idea of ‘committed literature’.

The effect of all this was to entangle Sarraute with the ‘new novel’. But this does not do her full justice. Sarraute was her own woman, and a true pioneer. She set out on her path towards a new, anti-psychological, anti-Balzacian novel well before her younger male colleagues. When her first book, Tropisms, appeared in France in 1939, it went almost entirely unnoticed, garnering only three reviews in the first year after publication. She did receive a few letters of admiration, including one from Sartre, who would be instrumental in furthering her career after the war, by publishing her in Les Temps modernes and writing a preface for her novel Portrait of a Man Unknown (1948). (The war between antediluvian existentialists and cool modernists had not yet started.) Without the advent of the ‘new novel’ in the 1950s, Sarraute’s career might not have taken off at all. But it did take off, and towards the end of the century, her status was such that her works were consecrated by a Pléiade edition while she was still alive.

In 1985, the ‘new novel’ received its Nobel Prize. It went to Claude Simon for his novels focusing on violence and war. In my opinion, the Swedish Academy would have done better to give it to Sarraute, who remained productive throughout her long life, and had just published her engrossing and formally innovative memoir Childhood (1983). Surely Virginia Woolf’s analysis applies here: in a sexist society, the arbiters of taste simply can’t help thinking that books dealing with war are more important than a book that ‘deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room’. Or, in this case: a book that deals with the minute undercurrents running through our minds. Or with girlhood, for that matter.

Nobel Prize or not, Sarraute’s place in literary history appears secure. And yet. During the culture wars of the 1980s, we used to say that ‘the canon is what gets taught.’ And I have the sense that Sarraute is no longer widely taught in French departments in the US. (The situation may well be different in other countries, not least in France.) A highly unscientific poll among colleagues confirmed my hunch. Nobody had seen her name on doctoral students’ reading lists since the mid-1990s. Some said they hadn’t taught her work since the 1980s. One person reported that she regularly taught one of Sarraute’s plays – in a course on theatre. Others passed on vague rumours that if anyone were teaching anything by Sarraute, it was Childhood.

I don’t teach her works either. I’m a Beauvoir scholar, and a feminist, and I actually like Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins (1954), which Sarraute detested. In her memoirs, Beauvoir takes Sarraute to task for implicitly attacking the novel in her essay ‘Conversation and Sub-Conversation’, included in The Age of Suspicion (1956).The essay attacks demands for ‘committed writing’, and Beauvoir probably made sure that Les Temps modernes didn’t publish it.

Sarraute’s relationship to feminism was complicated. In the mid-1930s, she campaigned with the pioneering lawyer, socialist and feminist Maria Vérone for women’s right to vote. (It was granted in 1944.) But Sarraute hated ‘identity-talk’. Her writing both cultivates and investigates impersonality, anonymity, anti-psychology, the general as opposed to the individual. The very idea of being a ‘woman writer’ was anathema to Sarraute: ‘It is a serious mistake,’ she once said, ‘especially for women, to talk about women’s writing [écriture féminine] or men’s writing. There are just writings, full stop.’ In 1984, when écriture féminine was at the height of its popularity, she famously summed up her radically anti-identitarian attitude: ‘When I write I am neither man nor woman nor dog nor cat.’

Sarraute never foregrounds women, femininity, or sexual difference. Anyone looking for a late modernist to include in a course on 20th-century French women writers would probably choose Marguerite Duras over Sarraute. Recently, Annabel Kim, in Unbecoming Language, suggested that Sarraute’s anti-identitarianism can be read as a kind of commitment to a radical equality, in ways that anticipate the feminisms of Monique Wittig and Anne Garréta.* In this vein, I would add that Sarraute’s insistence on the impersonal and anonymous aspects of language and subjectivity strikes me as consonant with Barthes’s ideas about a politics of style, an egalitarian utopia of the neutral. But even if we believe that her writing lends itself to such political uses, we should acknowledge that Sarraute herself never thought of it in those ways.

Ann Jefferson’s​ biography, Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between, which has already appeared in French, is a major contribution to Sarraute studies. A distinguished scholar of French, but once a student of Russian (Sarraute was born near Moscow), Jefferson is one of the editors of the 1996 Pléiade edition of Sarraute’s collected works. In 2000, she published a much admired monograph, Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference. Her account of Sarraute’s life and career will be indispensable reading not just for scholars, but for anyone who wants to know who Nathalie Sarraute was.

Sarraute hated biographies. Or rather, she hated attempts to read an author’s works through the lens of her life, something Jefferson tactfully refrains from doing. Having spent her life writing books contesting traditional psychology, Sarraute would also have hated to be turned into a psychological case study. Jefferson has chosen to honour her views, and as a result, her book doesn’t really convey what Sarraute was like as a person. In her monograph, Jefferson compellingly brought out the themes of anxiety, and what Sarraute herself, quoting Katherine Mansfield, called ‘that terrible desire to establish contact’. In the biography, she keeps the discussion of anxiety and intimacy pretty general. Bucking the trend in contemporary biography, she doesn’t write much about sex. But that may be because there isn’t much to say. When they got married, Raymond and Nathalie Sarraute agreed that they would be monogamous while they had young children, but otherwise would be free to pursue liaisons. Apparently Raymond used this freedom, while Nathalie never did.

Jefferson’s style is clear and patient, always setting out the facts that can be established, careful to signal doubt and always conveying the difference between knowledge and informed speculation. I only noticed one minor mistake, namely the claim that both Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil attended the École Normale for women at Sèvres. In fact, neither did. When Beauvoir finished high school in 1925, the more prestigious École Normale for men in the rue d’Ulm, which Sartre attended, did not admit women. Beauvoir, who didn’t want to shut herself up with a bunch of women outside Paris, attended the Institut Catholique in the rue Vaugirard before moving on to the Sorbonne. In 1928, when Weil applied, the rue d’Ulm had, reluctantly, opened its doors to women (it would close them again in 1940), and since Weil excelled in the entrance exams, they had to let her in.

Natalia Ilyinichna Tcherniak was born to Jewish parents on 18 July 1900 in Ivanovo-Voznesensk in Russia. Her father, Israel (Ilya) Tcherniak, had built up a factory producing industrial dyes. Her mother, Khina Perl (Polina) Chatounovskaya, was – or rather struggled to become – a writer. She published just two novels, both of which Jefferson finds underwhelming. Sarraute’s parents separated when Natacha, as she was known to her family, was two years old. Taking Natacha with her, Polina left for Paris and a new husband, letting her old husband have their daughter for summers in Switzerland. In late 1905, Natacha’s mother and stepfather returned to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg. But soon after Polina’s return to Russia, Ilya had to leave. Although he was not, as far as we know, politically active, his brother Yakov was an anarchist, a suspect in a 1906 robbery and the object of international uproar when Russia demanded his extradition from Sweden. Yakov died in 1907, most likely killed by the tsar’s secret police. Moving to Paris, Ilya began the hard work of establishing a new dye factory.

In January 1909 Ilya married Vera Cheremetievskaya, a Russian who never learned to speak fluent French. Polina immediately shipped Natacha off to her father and stepmother in Paris. Luckily for Natacha, Ilya appears to have been a caring and protective father, for her mother seems to have had enough of motherhood. And Vera was no comfort. In Childhood, the Vera figure comes across as the evil stepmother incarnate. When the little girl commits the crime of asking if they are going home soon, she replies: ‘It isn’t your home.’ When Vera hired an English nanny for her own daughter, Lili, she told the nanny never to speak English with Natacha. But it’s difficult to imagine a stronger incentive to learn a language than to have your detested stepmother forbid it. Whenever Ilya and Vera went out at night, Natacha rushed over to the nanny’s room to speak English. Sarraute, already bilingual in French and Russian, remained a keen linguist, and became fluent in German as well as English.

Going to school in France, Natacha became Nathalie. She passed her baccalaureate in 1918, and then spent one blissful year in Oxford, and one rather depressed year in Berlin. On her return from Berlin, in 1922, she was briefly in therapy with Pierre Janet, who coined the terms ‘dissociation’ and ‘subconscious’. In her old age, she told Jefferson that Janet touched her breasts at the end of each session. All her life, she professed ‘unqualified scorn for the psychiatric profession’, Jefferson writes. Not quite knowing what to do with herself, Sarraute began to study law, which is how she met her future husband, a fellow law student.

In 1925, Nathalie Tcherniak married the 23-year-old Raymond Sarraute. From 1927 to 1933 she gave birth to three daughters. In the 1930s, she wore haute couture, often buying cast-offs used by models. She lived in a large apartment in the posh 16th arrondissement, and had a nanny, a cook and a cleaner. She never made a meal or did any housework in her life. Nor did she ever learn to type (her husband typed all her manuscripts). She had no income of her own until she began publishing at 38. In short, in the 1930s, Sarraute must have appeared to be the epitome of the bourgeois woman toying with the idea of writing, a figure skewered by Beauvoir in The Second Sex.

Sarraute’s comfortable bourgeois lifestyle had its costs. It isolated her from other writers, and ensured that she had no connections to literary gatekeepers. A voracious reader, she was deeply influenced by Proust, Kafka, Rilke and Woolf. After an Easter holiday in England in 1932, Sarraute wrote the first few of the brief texts that were to make up Tropisms. But her third pregnancy sidetracked her, and she really didn’t get back to writing until 1935. In 1936, she rented a room to write in. That year, she also became friends with the American Maria Jolas, co-founder of the modernist magazine transition, which enjoyed a stellar run from 1927 until it folded in 1938. The magazine published instalments of Joyce’s Work in Progress (later known as Finnegans Wake), as well as early texts by Samuel Beckett, Kay Boyle, H.D., Laura Riding and Paul Bowles. Sarraute found a kindred spirit in Jolas, someone who shared her own aesthetic sensibilities. She would remain a lifelong friend, and later became Sarraute’s translator. Jolas and her friends must have inspired Sarraute, for although she wrote slowly, by the autumn of 1938, she had sent her first manuscript out to publishers. The avant-garde publisher Denoël immediately accepted the slim volume, and Tropisms duly appeared in February 1939.

The most striking part of Jefferson’s biography is her account of Sarraute’s tribulations during the German occupation, which until now have been little known. Here Jefferson’s superb scholarship really pays off. Sarraute herself rarely spoke about this period, possibly, Jefferson thinks, because she suffered from survivor’s guilt. As I read these chapters, I was at once moved and surprised. After the Germans invaded Paris in June 1940, it didn’t take long for the collaborationist Vichy government to issue a decree defining who would count as a Jew, laying the foundations for the persecution of French Jews. A Jew was someone who had more than two Jewish grandparents. Raymond’s mother, Livcha, who died in 1908 when he was six, was a Russian Jew, but since his father, Joseph, was French, he escaped categorisation as a Jew. At first.

In October, Jews were required to register. Nathalie’s father Ilya complied, and Nathalie went with him, although Raymond had advised her not to. The consequences for Raymond were dire, because her registration also made him Jewish: having two Jewish grandparents plus being married to a Jew was enough to tip the balance. Since Jews were no longer allowed to work, or run their own business, Raymond would have to close his law practice. Nathalie and Raymond solved the problem not by fleeing the country, but by divorcing. In an eloquent and completely false letter, Nathalie claimed that Raymond regularly engaged in appalling verbal abuse. When the divorce came through, the family continued to live together as before. (Raymond and Nathalie remarried in 1956.) Ilya, who was forced to transfer his factory to Aryan ‘trustees’, left for Switzerland, begging Nathalie to come with him. She wouldn’t leave Raymond and her daughters.

In late August 1941, Raymond was arrested and sent to Drancy, the internment camp on the outskirts of Paris. Although his arrest seems to have been a case of mistaken identity, to be released he had to prove he wasn’t Jewish by showing evidence of religious affiliation. Unfortunately, his atheist, socialist parents had not had him baptised. Finally, the family procured a false certificate of baptism for his dead mother, Livcha, and Raymond was released. But at the end of April 1942 he was rearrested, apparently as part of a round-up of leftists. This was the last straw for Joseph Sarraute. On 7 May 1942, he took his own life. At the end of the month, his son was released.

In June that year, the wearing of the yellow star became compulsory. Nathalie never wore it, and for that alone she could have been deported. In July the infamous round-up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris took place. More than 13,000 Jews (including more than 4000 children) were arrested, many of whom were kept in inhuman conditions in the stadium, and then deported. Clearly, Nathalie was no longer safe in Paris. She sought refuge on the outskirts of the city. First she rented a summer cottage in the village of Janvry, but she took her mother and her daughters with her, and Raymond came to stay at weekends. Some time in the autumn she sheltered Samuel Beckett and his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil for a couple of weeks after their Resistance group had been betrayed. One might have hoped this would be a meeting of great minds, but Beckett and Sarraute took an instant and lifelong dislike to each other. Janvry soon became dangerous. By chance, Sarraute learned that her next-door neighbour, the local boulanger, was planning to denounce her. She fled on a Sunday. On the Monday, the police turned up. After spending some time in hiding in Paris, she got fake identity papers in the name of Nicole Sauvage, and moved to a pension for children in the Val-d’Oise, where she passed as a teacher. Soon her two younger daughters joined her, posing as her nieces, and Raymond visited at weekends. I was astounded at this. Why wouldn’t the presence of her daughters, as well as her husband’s regular comings and goings, give the game away?

The civil servant who had given Sarraute her fake papers was shot late in 1943. In spring 1944 she had to flee again. The children returned to live with Raymond, while Nathalie hid at a friend’s house in Paris. In the last few months of the Occupation, repression was harsh and transportations of Jews continued unabated. Yet Nathalie, wearing a long veil, continued to meet her children in parks. Somehow she made it through to the Liberation on 25 August. I would have liked Jefferson to probe this a bit more. It seems to me that Sarraute took unnecessary risks. Both her father and her stepsister, Lili, had escaped to Switzerland, but Sarraute actively refused that option. Was it because she simply couldn’t leave her daughters, as her mother had once left her? Was it devotion to Raymond? How did she cope psychologically? Given the leitmotif of anxiety in her work, how did she live for years under constant threat? Jefferson doesn’t really say.

Even after so much anxiety and persecution, Sarraute didn’t think of herself as a Jewish writer. ‘During the Occupation I felt Jewish,’ she said in 1959, ‘which is to say unjustly persecuted, but not at all involved in a culture and a religion which I know nothing about.’ The realm of writing, for her, remained the neutral, the anonymous, the impersonal, expressed as the pre-conscious and pre-personal undercurrents of the mind, which she named ‘tropisms.’ In 1956, she called tropisms the ‘living substance of all my books’.

‘Tropisms’ are the almost imperceptible movements of consciousness that slip across the mind and disappear before we have had the chance to notice them. Sarraute’s writing is a sustained effort to capture and name these movements. Like the word ‘tropism’ itself, which denotes the movement of a plant in response to a stimulus, such as sunlight, Sarraute’s tropisms belong as much to biology as to psychology, anticipating ideas that currently circulate under the heading ‘affect theory’, as well as relatively recent psychoanalytic investigations of mood and affect.

Her interest in tropisms logically led her to disdain realism and traditionally ‘rounded’ characters. This is the reason she was perceived as one of the ‘new novelists’ in the 1950s although, as Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet were the first to realise, she was always more interested in psychic life – tropisms are after all movements of the mind – than her male colleagues. Where they sought to convey surfaces, she was looking for depth and, in her way, for passion too. For her, tropisms reveal and respond to intense affects, what Jefferson calls an ‘internal underworld of frequently violent dramas of attraction and repulsion’. She is right. On my rereading of Tropisms, I discovered a text saturated with anxiety, frustration and rage.

Here is an example:

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.

Stretched out motionless in the grass under the scorching sun, watching, waiting.

We learn nothing about the character, ‘she’, who almost disappears under the weight of the descriptions. A suffocating tension builds up: the words in the passage are menacing, and chill, solitude, abandonment, threat, hostility close in on the character. Somewhere, someone or something is watching and waiting. I used to read this description of motionless silence on a July day as a formal exercise in neutrality. Now it reads like the build-up to a scene in a horror movie. But, this being Sarraute, nothing really happens, which in a way is worse, for it means that the pent-up tension has nowhere to go, that the character will never escape.

I can’t help feeling, in a deeply un-Sarrautean way, that Childhood explains where all that suppressed anxiety, frustration, rage and fear came from. Written as a dialogue between two unnamed voices, a female narrator and a male interlocutor who raises sceptical questions, and often pushes the narrator to examine certain scenes further, Childhood consists of a series of short sections, most of which begin with a word or a phrase heard by the little girl, which is then investigated and dissected by the narrator and her foil. Rejected by her narcissistic mother, and belittled and excluded by her unfeeling stepmother, the girl experiences harrowing solitude, intense longing for her mother, as well as a strong reluctance to name her feelings and perception. Is it even possible to think the word ‘selfish’, in relation to a beloved mother?

Childhood shows us a little girl yearning for acknowledgment – for someone to respond, to show her that they understand what she is going through. This, surely, is the ‘terrible desire for contact’. It’s terrible because anyone who wants her suffering to be acknowledged exposes herself to heartbreaking disappointment. In this respect even the protagonist’s dependable father fails her. She takes refuge in school. For her, a French education, which is to say a republican, secular and meritocratic one, is a liberation. Assessments lay claim to objectivity, the pecking order established by exam results is firm and clear, and as long as she aced her dictée, nobody reminded her that she was Russian, and Jewish, or anything else. The implacable grade provides shelter: not an identity, but a firm place in a strict hierarchy, a refuge from the unbearable pain produced by the yearning to be known. In The Age of Suspicion, Sarraute writes that tropisms respond to that terrible desire for contact. No wonder, then, that the grown Sarraute would create a body of work in which all the intensity of life takes place in the affective undercurrents, the ‘subconversations’ running through and alongside the banalities we actually utter.

Beginning in the 1950s, Sarraute settled into the calm existence of an increasingly distinguished writer. She met new, often famous people. She had significant friendships with Violette Leduc, Mary McCarthy and the much younger feminist writer Monique Wittig. There were lecture trips that took her across the world, including back to Russia, and a long stay in Israel. She made frequent trips to England and the United States. In the 1960s, she began to write plays, first for radio, then for the theatre, an obvious choice given her interest in dialogue and its undercurrents. Honours were bestowed on her. And she kept writing throughout her life, publishing her last book, Ouvrez, in 1997, putting the lie to the Pléiade’s ‘complete’ edition. When she died, at the age of 99, tributes poured in.

When I began preparing for this review, I hadn’t read anything by Sarraute for thirty years. To be honest, I thought of her as a boring formalist, someone I read out of duty. When it comes to postwar women writers, I would much rather read Beauvoir, McCarthy, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Natalia Ginzburg. Paradoxically, Jefferson’s biography enabled me to see the anti-biography Sarraute as a unique voice rather than a member of a well-studied movement.

My own literary sensibility has also changed. The last time I read Sarraute I had read Proust, Kafka and Woolf, but knew nothing about the writers who were to bewitch me in the future: writers like W.G. Sebald, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk, and many others. These writers respond to a new craving for reality in literature, a new demand for emotional identification and for an immersion in the world proposed by a novel. Had I forgotten – or had I never noticed? – that Childhood is emotionally compelling? And how could I have overlooked the ferocious violence of the affective currents in Tropisms? In short: once I freed myself from the formalist lens imposed by my old ideas about the ‘new novel’, I was able to read Sarraute not just as an experimenter with form, but as a fascinating explorer of what it means to be a lonely human being in a world saturated with private and public violence.

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