Reading: Nathalie Sarraute

Nathalie Sarraute was born in 1900 in Russia near Moscow, into a Jewish family, cultured, well off. As a child she lived in Paris then she received a cosmopolitan education. She studied English, then history in England at Oxford, sociology in Berlin, law in Paris. Her ambition was to become an international lawyer. At the same time she was writing.

Nathalie Sarraute loved the literature of the twentieth century, especially Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. These writers had abandoned traditional writing. They no longer presented novels with people, adventures, like Balzac or Alexandre Dumas, or Victor Hugo. They were interested in the mechanisms of thought, in feelings, in impressions which cause individuals to react. This “impressionist” literature appeared in 1932 in a collection of essays by Sarraute, Tropisms, published in 1939, republished in its definitive text in 1957.

Nathalie Sarraute defined tropisms as “indefinable movements which slide very quickly to the limits of consciousness; they are the source of our gestures, our words, the feelings which we reveal, which we believe we feel and which can be defined”.

In 1941, the political situation during the Second World War forced Sarraute to give up her legal career. Being Jewish, she was struck off from the bar in Paris following the anti-Semitic laws. From then on, she dedicated herself entirely to literature.

Sarraute became with the republication of Tropism “a legend”, as we say now, at “just” sixty (as we would say now…), and she remained one until the end of her almost hundred year long life. She wrote her last book “Ouvrez” in 1997. She died in 1999.

She left us some twenty works including Tropisms 1939 (a collection of essays), Planetarium 1959 (novel), Fools Say 1976 (novel), For No Good Reason 1982 (play), Childhood 1983 (autobiography).

For No Good Reason

“Pour un oui ou pour un non” is the name of the play. It is an expression which means “without good cause”, “for no particular reason”. For example, someone inconsistent changes opinion “over nothing at all”. In this play it is about two good friends who argue for no apparent reason. However there is a real motive deep down. In effect, people express themselves in a certain way outwordly, but they are affected by things differently.

It is general behaviour. To demonstrate that, Nathalie Sarraute calls the two main players in the argument H1 and H2, that is Man 1 and Man 2. Quite simply men who speak with simple words. The play begins like this:

H1: Listen, I wanted to ask you… It is a bit because of this that I’ve come… I would like to know… What happened? What have you got against me?
H2: Well, nothing… Why?
H1: I don’t know… It seems to me that you’re distancing yourself… you never contact me. It always has to be me.

Right away we have the idea of straight talking between these long term friends. But that’s far from being the case. H2 finally recognises that he is criticising something in H1.

H2: Well… you told me some time ago… you told me… when I was boasting of, I don’t know any more, some success… yes… laughable… when I talked to you about it… you said “that’s good… that”.
H1: Say that again, please… I had trouble hearing.
H2, taking courage: You said to me: “That’s good… that”, just like that… with that gap, with that emphasis.

Everything is loaded. The remark “That’s good… that” is trivial, as we say it easily without thinking about it.

H1: Listen, tell me if I am dreaming… if I’m mistaken… you’re supposed to have spoken to me about… what success by the way…?
H2: It hardly matters… some old success.
H1: So I would have said to you “That’s good that “?
H2, sighing: Not quite like that… there was between “That’s good” and “that” a much longer gap. “That’s good… that”. The emphasis on “good”… a stretch “goood” and a gap before “that”… it’s not without importance.

The meaning of words is conveyed by the way they are pronounced. Pronounced with contempt – this is the case according to H2 – the compliment becomes a repudiation. In the play, these words take on a dramatic dimension. We realise that the two friends do not have the same values. H1 is practical, sure of himself, his life, his wife and his social standing. H2 is also sure of himself in a way that’s poetic, unconventional, dream-like, perhaps idealistic. His sensitivity pushes him to detect, under the guise of shared friendship, a fatal fault: the condescension of H1, a vicious contempt.

Sarraute draws our attention to “innumerable little offences” which people commit, with destructive words disguised in polite forms. However, she does not just concentrate on the words. “For No Good Reason” has two other characters, the neighbours H3 and F, his wife. They represent other people, the burden of others, the official rule book of decorum, what makes your reputation, either good or bad. If we ask them their opinion, the others will deny the two friends the right to break-up over so little. H1 and H2 already know how “the jury” would respond.

H1: Yes, no doubt about it, no hesitation: case dismissed, both of them [us].
H2: And even were they to be on the look out… to pay very careful attention. We know what troubles befall those who have the vanity to allow themselves to behave like that, without reason… They would be marked out… People would only approach them with care, with the greatest of distrust… Everyone would know what they were capable of, of what they could be guilty: they are able to break-up for no good reason.

A silence

H2: Yes or no?…
H1: However that’s not the same thing…
H2: Indeed: Yes. Or no.
H1: Yes.
H2: No!

This play is profound even though it is very short (30 pages). It is funny too, in a painfully humourous way.

[1] Tropism – biological term for the reaction of an organism to an external stimulus.

$Id: 2008_06_cul.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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