Being Beside One’s Self
If the nineteenth century was the great period for novelistic characterisation, it would be naive to assume twentieth century writers simply failed to match it. They often didn't even try. As Nathalie Sarraute says, "today , a constantly rising tide has been flooding us with literary works that still claim to be novels and in which a being devoid of outline, indefinable, intangible and invisible, an anonymous 'I', who is at once all and nothing, and who as often as not is but the reflection of the author himself, has usurped the role of the hero." Sarraute adds, "our minds might be set at rest, if we could impute this method of procedure to an egocentricity peculiar to adolescence, to the timidity or inexperience of the beginner. As it happens, however, this youthful malady has attacked some of the most important works of our time." Sarraute mentions Remembrance of Things Past, Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Journey to the End of the Night and Nausea. "In other words, works in which the authors have given immediate proof of very evident mastery and rare forcefulness." (The Age of Suspicion)
Like many an important fiction writer's extra-curricular work, Sarraute's essays are not jobbing accounts of other writers' books, they are investigations into what literature is and where her own work can be located. Talking of Balzac's Eugene Grandet she says, "Just as the colour yellow was the lemon and the colour blue was the sky, so that they were inconceivable one without the other, avarice was Pere Grandet; it was his entire substance, it filled him to the very brim and, at the same time, owed its vigour to him." (The Age of Suspicion) This allows for the vivid characters available in 19th century fiction, but Sarraute wonders what replaces such certitude. It is less concreteness of characterisation than the vulnerability of authorial perspective. The author becomes centre stage, but with no certainties to offer. Whether it is Woolf, Kafka or Sartre, thought becomes much more fluid.
It is this fluidity that Sarraute tries to capture more than almost any other writer, and she even has a term for it: a tropism. This is where Sarraute aims "to show certain inner 'movements' by which I had long been attracted; in fact, I might even say that, ever since I was a child, these movements, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives, had struck and held my attention." (Tropisms) If we think again of Sarraute's comments on Balzac, we can see that observations are secondary to character: that there is a fixity of characterization that demands a limitation to perception. Now of course most nineteenth century novels don't hold to a single character's point of view, but each character nevertheless has a point of view that is limited by the relative narrowness of the character sketching. Madame Bovary cannot have thoughts far removed from her provincial ambitions; Rastignac from his Parisian ones, Anna Karina from her adulterous crisis. Partly what allows for the stories to gather shape and focus are the priorities of character. But what happens if the writer chooses to reverse this: to make perception more important than character ? can a story readily build? Sarraute says "with regard to Proust, it is true that these groups composed of sensations, images, sentiments and memories which, when traversing or skirting the thin curtain of the interior monologue, suddenly become visible from the outside, in an apparently insignificant word, a mere intonation or a glance, are precisely what he took such pains to study. But...to us it appears already as though he had observed them from a great distance, after they had run their course, in repose, and, as it were, congealed in memory." (The Age of Suspicion) Here Sarraute suggests that even Proust was still holding to character over perception, that the narrator's presence still allowed for a perceptual homogenization, however brilliant. Sarraute is obviously not attacking Proust ? she just wonders how a writer coming after him can find new ways in which to crystallize hints of thought and feeling.
In a Paris Review interview with another French writer, Georges Simenon, the interviewer mentions a recent critic who asked "that the novel return to the kind of novel written in the nineteenth century." Simenon, an often popular novelist best known for the Maigret books, replies, "It is impossible. Completely impossible...You may show love in a very nice story, the first ten months of two lovers, as in the literature of a long time ago." But Simenon then adds that you have a second story which shows the couple beginning to get bored, and then a third story where the man wants another life, the woman gets jealous and their children are involved." In another interview in the same magazine, Aldous Huxley says, "of course I base my characters partly on people I know ? one can't escape it ? but fictional characters are over-simplified; they're much less complex than people one knows." Here Simenon addresses the ever-increasing emotional complexity of literature, and Huxley accepts that literature can only capture a small percentage of someone's personality. To understand Sarraute's ambition is to comprehend how much further into the problem of the emotions Sarraute is willing to go, and also accept that of course literature can only be a very partial angle on someone's being. The question for Sarraute is which aspects will she search out: what elements of life should she choose as her concern. The 19th century novelist was free to create vivid stories and detailed characters, but the minutiae of perception would often have been seen as irrelevant. We might read 19th century novels and feel exhausted by the details offered, but this was still usually scene setting; what interests Sarraute is the sort of observations that are easily missed because they don't seem pertinent to daily existence. As she says, "to achieve this [realism], he [the modern writer] works unceasingly to rid what he sees of the matrix of preconceived ideas and ready-made images that encase it, as also of all the surface reality that everyone can easily see and which, for want of anything better, everyone see and which everyone uses; and occasionally he succeeds in attaining to something that is thus far unknown, which it seems to him he is the first to have seen." (The Age of Suspicion)
Tropisms was the name given to Sarraute's first work, but it is behind her oeuvre: this need to drag out perceptual fragments that aren't so much someone's thoughts, feelings, sensations, as simply thoughts, feelings, sensations. Here are examples of three from her debut book. "She did not move. And about her the entire house, the street, seemed to encourage her, seemed to consider this motionlessness natural." "Objects, too, were very wary of him and had been for a long time, ever since, as a little child, he had begged their favour, had tried to attach himself to them, to cling to them, to warm himself, they had refused to play, to become what he wanted to make of them..." "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 make-up gave them a hard brilliancy, a lifeless freshness." Sauraute's work is very hard to read partly because these fragments are floating, not so much a part of a person's personality, but a thought that passes through the individual. In Paris Review Sarraute says "on the exterior level of action, I don't for a minute think that Hitler is like Joan of Arc. But I think that at that deep level of tropisms Hitler or Stalin must have experienced the same tropisms as anyone else". Here she raises an interesting and important question about what belongs to a person's personality. Where everything in a Balzac novel, Sarraute believes, is reflective of the character so described, how much of what passes for perception can we call our own? This can come from the depth of dreams to the automatic reaction to a noise ? what makes us claim these responses as ours? If we are sometimes suspicious of Freud's symbolic interpretation of dreams it rests on the need to take what Jung would call the collective unconscious and turn it into a sign of an individual's psyche. But perhaps dreams often have no more to do with the specifics of the self than a loud noise that makes people start. One comes from the unconscious that cannot easily be credited to the self; the other from a response that hardly individuates ? how many people wouldn't react to a loud bang? But what about these perceptual instances; where do they belong? If both Hitler and Stalin would be likely to dream that they were falling off a cliff, and both react to a distinct noise, it seems also true that these small observations Sarraute talks about would hardly be reflective of what we would take to be their personality. Wouldn't Hitler have noticed like a character in The Golden Fruits, that "she listens to him, her limpid eyes fixed upon him, her mouth slightly open...face of a rapt fanatic...inadequately furnished head into which come to settle perhaps, taking up all the room, who knows what absurd beliefs..." even if that absurd belief might have been the very one he had helped put in there. Hitler would notice as someone momentarily transfixed on the smallest of gestures, just as Stalin might observe the same thing.
So what is it that makes a character, taking into account Sarraute's resistance to them, Balzac's acceptance of them, and Huxley's difficulty in offering more than a partial presentation? As Sarraute's Nouveau Roman colleague Alain Robbe-Grillet says in For a New Novel, "...he must possess "character", a face which reflects it, a past which has molded that face and that character. His character dictates his actions, makes him react to each event in a determined fashion." He must also of course have a name, parents, a profession etc. When Huxley frets over the notion of character he does so from a position of life that gets reflected in the art: the inevitable winnowing that takes place so that the multi-layered human becomes a narratively motivational force. But what happens if the writer gets rid of a great deal of backstory, work commitments and familial intrigues? Some writers might see the novel collapsing because its foundation lies in characterization, others that these are false foundations limiting the novel from exploring the immensity of the real. Yet though Sarraute would surely be one of the latter, we needn't exaggerate her resistance to character and we can look at Martereau and The Golden Fruits to see that the eschewal is far from complete.
Martereau has at its centre a nephew who observes the relationship between his wealthy uncle and the uncle's young wife, and who gets involved in a deal between the uncle and Martereau, as the latter helps the former transfer property into his name as part of a tax dodge. The cousin is involved in the various transactions, and minutely observes the power play between the uncle, the uncle's wife, Martereau and Martereau's wife, and his own place within this entanglement. In this novel published in 1953 we do have characters offered within a familial environment, and a story that revolves around one event. There are ways into this novel even if there aren't quite ways out. Though Sarraute admits readers find her work demanding. "...It's difficult. Because I plunge in directly, without giving any reference points. One doesn't know where one is, or who is who. I speak right away of the essential things, and that's very difficult. In addition, people have the habit of looking for the framework of the traditional novelcharacters, plotsand they don't find it; they're lost." (Paris Review) However, even more demanding is that even if you do find an entry point, this doesn't mean you will find an exit. When Faulkner suggested that if you didn't understand The Sound and the Fury even after two or three readings and proposes "reading it four times", he is suggesting there isn't much of a way in but there is with enough time and patience a way out: we can make sense of it. Yet the blurb on the back of the Calder and Boyers English edition of Between Life and Death announces "the real and the imaginary intermingle in such a way that it would be useless for the reader to try and separate them."
Sarraute wants the reader to seize upon moments of revelation rather than teleologically move towards a conclusion, and we might wonder how often when people say character is destiny that what they mean is that destiny is character: that not only our actions define who we are but also our goals. Yet two Heraclitus comments come to mind that might ostensibly contradict each other. The first is that "good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character." Yet we also have: "you cannot step twice into the same river." If as the latter remark suggests, everything is constantly changing, how can we possible develop character? Yet Sarraute's work suggests if we let go of this notion of character as destiny, and accept that many of our observations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings have nothing to do with our perceived futures, we can accept that of course we have thoughts passing through our minds constantly: this is existence as Heraclitan philosophy. We don't step into the same river twice because we all have streams of consciousness, thoughts denoting as William James proposed, the flow of inner experience. On one level the gap between most people and Hitler is enormous as Hitler's notion of destiny is unlikely to be similar to that of others, but 'tropistically' we are all witness to the constant moments of change.
In both Martereau and The Golden Fruits Sarraute gives us a few things to hang our perceptions on, but her interest lies elsewhere. Sure we can say that in The Golden Fruitsnumerous people pass comment on a recent novel that was met with acclaim, and where much of that praise is now being reassessed, while Martereau concerns a tax dodge, but these are premises not plots: they don't go anywhere. There is no strongly identifiable author of the titular novel in The Golden Fruits, nor are there the sort of events that would give us 'plot grounding'. Where a book like Martin Amis's The Information offers a series of binaries and biographical bolsterings to develop a plot of literary rivalry, Sarraute avoids all the cliches of such a position by keeping the book in a state of perceptual flux. Amis announces the social divide between the socially uppercrust yet down-at-heel Richard Tull envying his now very wealthy author friend who was from a much more socially limited background. Amis plays up the divisions and plays with all the humorous possibilities that can come out of literary life, and Tull himself is presented as a novelist not too far removed from Sarraute. When Amis very amusingly talks of Tull's last novel having no less than sixteen unreliable narrators, he offers the possibility of a book as impenetrable as Sarraute's are usually taken to be. Even Jean Paul Sartre said to Sarraute "if you persist in writing like that you'll sacrifice your life." For Amis, such obscurity is a source of constant humour; for Sarraute the rarefied fiction she writes is an attempt to get closer to perception that is never given but has to be taken. Where given perception even when it is witty and clever often clusters around stale thoughts well put, the taken observation is never quite crystallized enough to pass for a bon mot or an aphorism.
While Amis' work constantly seeks the witty out in an often deliberately repetitive style that insists we get the point, Sarraute's work constantly withholds the point. Here is a not untypical Amis sentence."For Richard knew already, that he was in very serious physical trouble. This hangover had symptoms, including a primal incredulity with regard to all bodily actions and accomplishments, like crossing the legs, or scratching the head, or breathing: when Richard inhaled, he wasn't quite getting there ? he wasn't turning the corner, he wasn't getting there and he wasn't getting back. But what were these symptoms symptoms of?" The repetition we notice is for comic effect. This is a set-piece hangover. We know that Richard drinks far too much, is in a generally shambolic state, and that he contrasts completely with the smooth elegance of his literary rival Gwynn. But Sarraute is less interested in literary rivalry than the literary scene. When she says in an essay in The Age of Suspicion that critics often pronounce a book a masterpiece that they will then pick up again a year or two later and see that it is of no interest, "what they see is nothing but an illusion of reality. A flat, inert copy. The characters are like wax dummies, fabricated according to the easiest, most conventional methods." Where what interests Amis is to explore the idea of literary competitiveness in broad terms as Richard writes the most impenetrable of books and Gwyn the most commercially accessible, Sarraute wonders what these very notions like impenetrability and accessibility are. Her books are demanding partly because of the difficult questions she poses.
In The Golden Fruits the book at its centre is an opportunity for Sarraute to explore the many ways in which people place themselves socially in relation to a text, and yet where what sits just behind the social can occasionally manifest itself too. When a character in the book says "Very good, Brule's article on The Golden Fruits. Absolutely first class. Perfect," it gives the person making the remark the air of authority, but does it hide any opportunity at expression? After the character says this, the narrator adds: "the detached tone is that of someone coldly stating a fact. In the motionless face, the staring eyes are looking straight ahead, like the mouth of the cannon a soldier standing motionless on his tank points directly forward, while he parades with the victorious army through the streets of an occupied city." The character's approach to fiction is militaristic, strategic, careful, positioned. It isn't at all reckless, personal, revealing. Later in the book there is a passage which goes, "she will never tire of admiring him...It's thanks to people like him, pure, upright, strong people, that true values have always succeeded in asserting themselves." This character whom the woman admires, Jacques, believes "...all that is needed is to let oneself go, to trust one's feelings, to hang on, let nothing intervene, always enter into direct, intimate contact with the object of one's attention..." It is this intensity Sarraute constantly searches out.
Sarraute well knows that a work of art is not a simple object: it is a complex object. A simple object is one in which the connotations are weak, the invite to subjectivity minimal, the practical function optimal. A cooker is a simple object, like a washing machine or a fridge. They may take on some connotations of class in a consumer society, but they do not invite emotional speculation. The complex object, the art object, does, but how many people are equal to its demands? What is often offered are opinions: a personal response without a subjective reaction. This is exactly what the character provides in The Golden Fruits when he talks of Brule's excellent article on the book. It remains a safe, invulnerable reaction indicative of confidence and expertise, but not of the personal response the artwork invites. When in The Age of Suspicion Sarraute says that the expert is often wary of the things the public notices in the work of art she believes that "we are disconcerted by the unimportant details that seem to have struck them particularly: trifles that they could find quite as well in works devoid of all literary value". She gives as an example Rilke overhearing someone say, while looking at a portrait of Cezanne's wife, "How could he have married such a homely woman?" Sarraute herself hears a similar remark in front of a Van Gogh canvas, "Poor man, you can see that he has just had his furniture seized." Sarraute reckons "there is nothing very disturbing about remarks of this sort. They should rather set our minds at rest; for they are perhaps merely the familiar and somewhat off-handed manner that denote great intimacy." In this intimacy they understand "what constitutes the real importance of these works." The person commenting on Brule's excellent article gives no indication of intimacy and so his response is fundamentally much less valid than someone commenting on the seized furniture.
This is why Jacques in The Golden Fruits is so admired. He seems capable of seeing the nuances in things and finding a personal response that cuts through the generalization. But the central character (a tentative term in Sarraute's work) and Jacques argue over whether every sentence in a book counts, or whether it is the whole. Yet at least the disagreement takes place on the plane of the personal intermingling with the content of the work. If earlier the man commenting on Brule's essay suggests wide reading and the public's remarks a personal response, here the central character and Jacques are arguing from a place that engages with the work and with themselves. They respect both the object and the subjectivity brought to bear upon it. When Sarraute says that writers seeking new forms, new feeling "cannot do [so] without a partner," she adds, "often it is an imaginary partner who emerges from our past experience or from our day-dreams, and the scenes of love or combat between us by virtue of their wealth of adventure, the freedom with which they unfold, and what they reveal concerning our least apparent inner structure, can constitute very valuable fictional material." (The Age of Suspicion) However, there is in Sarraute's work also the idea of the reader as the partner, as someone who does not demand a preconceived experience, but adventures through a book.
We find ourselves exploring the work even on the most ostensible levels. Sarraute's absence of speech marks often makes it difficult for us to work out who is doing the speaking, and dashes are used to indicate someone is speaking at all. This approach to dialogue isn't just an affectation, but a determination: a need to collapse dialogue into thought, and thought into dialogue. Admiring British writers Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett she wonders where dialogue can go in contemporary fiction. Green thought dialogue was the best way to capture life; Compton-Burnett, Sarraute believes, doesn't just offer conversation, but that her work exists "somewhere on the fluctuating frontier that separates conversation from sub-conversation." (The Age of Suspicion) For Sarraute this creates a certain pressure in the dialogue that comes from beneath, so that while thoughts aren't expressed in contrast to the dialogue, they exist somehow and somewhere in the dialogue. This is the social world constantly threatened by a subterranean cerebralism. "More often than not, the inside gets the better of it: something keeps cropping out, becoming manifest..." (The Age of Suspicion) In Sarraute's fiction the inside and outside aren't easily distinguishable either, but she emphasises the internal rather than the external by having dialogue floating on the sub-dialogue.
We can see how this works in Martereau. "That's us in Corsica, on our wedding trip...she was frightened to death on the steep paths..." Here there are speech marks, but the dialogue serves an investigation into Martereau and his wife's person from another's internal perspective; from the cousin's perceptions: "Mme. Martereau smiles, the fine, clearly drawn wrinkles that line her close-grained skin form an aureole about the corner of her eyes, Martereau has his arm about her shoulder, they look at each other, smiling." The dialogue is of course on the surface in the first instance but it also seems consistent with the idea that all thought and speech in her work is as if under one's breath: it isn't quite for public consumption. It always retains a sense of the intimate, the obscure, the potentially incomprehensible. What Sarraute succeeds in doing, no matter the failure of comprehension that frequently results, is to write books under one's breath, so that dialogue and thought, usually such distinct qualities in fiction, become all but indeterminate. As she says, "this dialogue, which tends more and more, in the modern novel, to take the place left by action, does not adapt itself easily to the forms imposed by the traditional novel." The remark made by Martereau about his wife is like the absent mutterings of the preoccupied; the cousin's observations that of someone with preoccupations of their own: someone who is keeping his thoughts to himself just as Martineau is half announcing his. In each instance however the story is on hold, as dialogue, interior and exterior, never quite rises to the surface enough to create the dramatic.
To conclude, we can look at a couple of examples from the traditional novel, a couple more from Sarraute's work, and show how they differ. Here is a passage from Jane Austen's Emma: "'Cautious, very cautious," thought Emma; 'he advances inch by inch, and will hazard nothing till he believes himself secure.'" We are then privy to Emma's thoughts but without the speech marks. "Still, however, though everything had not been accomplished by her ingenious device, she could not flatter herself that it had been the occasion of much present enjoyment to both, and must be leading them forward to the great event." Here we have Emma trying to set up her lowly friend Harriet with the the local vicar, and Austen offers Emma's thoughts as though under her breath as we have Emma thinking in speech marks, and then her further thoughts as slight narrative remove. Here is Dickens in Hard Times, "'I speak to Mr Harthouse?' she said, when they were alone. 'To Mr. Harthouse.' He added in his mind, 'And you speak to him with the most confiding eyes I ever saw, and the most earnest voice (though so quiet) I ever heard.'" Here again, Harthouse, like Emma, is thinking under his breath ? the speech marks are present but are expressed strictly to the person thinking the remark: Harthouse is thinking to himself. That we find such examples in two early to mid-nineteenth century novels that are both immensely popular indicates that thinking under one's breath is common enough in literature, but what makes Sarraute's work so different?
It lies partly in the absence of clear markers, especially "he said", "she thought", "he remarked", "she wondered" etc. It also lies though in the notion that the dialogue is no longer embodied. Now of course what often embodies dialogue are the "she exclaimed", "he announced" that is the norm of earlier fiction, and still present in many popular contemporary novels. The difference in Sarraute's work, though is as if the entire book is taking place under one's breath, except that there is no clear 'I' under whose breath it is taking place. This might be due to an approach that makes the book the most important character ? as in The Golden Fruits ? or that the main character, like the cousin in Martereau ? is so passive a presence that he never quite rises to the surface, never quite becomes a character of action but constantly observes events to which he remains somehow abstracted. When Emma observes Mr Elton's behaviour it is because she hopes to set him up with Harriet, and she wants to be the one responsible for this future coupling. Of course she becomes more involved than she might like when she discovers Elton has designs on her and not on Harriet whom he believes is below his social station. Austen balances thought with action, but action will always win-out and allow the story to develop. Sarraute reverses this and no plot can ensue out the action because it is weak next to the thoughts that keep developing, leading to more and more thoughts: to tropisms. Emma's thought is what we would call scheming, and how often is thought in fiction exactly that, and a wonderful opportunity to develop story out of it? The thought available in Sarraute's work is more akin to reflection: it doesn't move the story forward, but blocks it, stills it.
We notice this for example in the short stories in the Use of Speech, and the novel Between Life and Death. In the story, 'Your Father, Your Sister', the piece opens on the remark, "if you go on like that, Armand, your father will prefer your sister." The entire story constantly returns to this sentence, to these words: "words such as these that are at the very centre of where we now find ourselves. Here, they are the centre of gravity. It is towards them, and them alone, that everything converges." This is meditative thought that can't go anywhere narratively, but must keep searching the fathoms of the effect. In Between Life and Death, the book opens with an exchange between a male writer and "his self-effacing mate". Again no story can proceed; instead a thought, and thoughts of the thought, keeps ricocheting around the book. Often we can't locate from whence the thought is coming, but thoughts keep coming nevertheless. Where in another novel it might concern the means by which the self -effacing mate becomes authoritative, gains purpose through action, in Sarraute's it is the nagging thought constantly nagged at that matters. Imagine if Madame Bovary never had those affairs, her husband had never operated on the boy's leg, and that she hadn't died of a horrible self-poisoning, but instead mused over her provincial marriage and all the little details passing through her mind about what she saw. If Flaubert could claim that he had written about nothing, a writer like Sarraute a century later was finding new areas of nothingness: new areas of minimalism to indicate the mind's capacity to think rather than act. These are minds so given to thought over action that it is as though they hardly belong to anyone in particular. They are thoughts passing through the mind, but because nothing is done with them, they don't possess the strong personal possessiveness of thoughts turned into an individual's actions. Thus Sarraute's work does not even lead to the Dostoevskian, Kafkan or Beckettian ? to the mind revelling in its own keenness ? but often more the mind distracted by its own 'outside', by the constant and fleeting moments that pass for a life where one is never quite oneself, but always, slightly, beside oneself. It is a difficult body of work to grasp, and writing about it perhaps inevitably makes for demanding writing too: as if we must be fair to the obscurity by unavoidably being a little abstruse ourselves.
© Tony McKibbin