Nathalie Sarraute: Between Genders and Genres

In the spring of 1932, Nathalie and Raymond Sarraute took an Easter holiday in England, leaving the children behind as they usually did when vacationing abroad. (Holidays with the children were spent in France, often with Nathalie in sole charge while Raymond stayed in Paris to work.) There’s no record of where they went, but wherever it was, the trip was unusually restorative, and Nathalie returned “feeling good.”

As she later remarked, “I don’t know why England has this effect on me [but] when I came back I felt livelier.” It was in this frame of mind that she composed the first of the short texts that eventually became Tropisms (1939). It was written straight off, without corrections, and although she would never again write as easily or as quickly, it marked the start of her literary career. She was 31.

Unlike most other writers, she had no preexisting juvenilia, no abandoned manuscript stored away in a drawer. Since her school compositions the closest she had got to writing was in imagination when she read Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger or Gide’s Paludes and felt as if she had written them herself.

But the previously unfocused desire to write had now found its object: “Suddenly I had a very strong impression of something . . . a sort of inner movement occurring as two people met—and I wrote it down, just like a first poem, without knowing exactly what it meant. I never dreamt it would turn into a book, but I was so interested in that kind of movement that I wrote down some other texts.”

In what she described as “an invisible dramatic action between two people,” an anonymous “he” is in thrall to an equally anonymous “her,” trapped by the anxiety that “she” instils in “him,” and desperate to avert the threat he feels emanating from her as some potentially explosive but unspecified psychic phenomenon. Another text (the second in the published volume) followed soon afterwards, with equally anonymous characters perceived from the vantage point of the mental world of a figure identified only as “he.”

It was a tentative beginning, but a decisive corner had been turned. Nathalie gave up her desultory legal career, no doubt partly because of her third—unplanned and ill-timed—pregnancy. In fact, reluctant to resign herself to the birth of another child now that she had started writing, she resorted to various homespun remedies—wearing thick woollens, drinking vinegar, and skipping—in an attempt to terminate the pregnancy. None proved effective, and Dominique was born almost a year after the first tropism.

There was little in the current literary environment to encourage Nathalie in the vein that she was making her own. Coincidentally and no doubt a little disconcertingly, Polina’s second novel, Vremya, was published in 1932 with the émigré publisher Parabola in Berlin. Other émigré Russians (most of them, incidentally, also Jewish) were making a name for themselves in French.

Joseph Kessel, who had moved to France as a child and was two years older than Nathalie, began writing novels in the early 1920s. Le Steppe rouge (The Red Steppe, 1922) is set in Bolshevik Russia, and Les Rois aveugles (The Blind Kings, 1925), portrays episodes from the Russian Revolution. Nuits de princes (Princes’ Nights) written in 1927, describes émigré Russian life in Paris, and confirmed the stereotype of the Russian émigré aristocrat reduced to driving taxis for a living.

At the time Nathalie was embarking on Tropisms, her Russian émigré contemporaries were still drawing on a Russian identity.

Irène Némirovsky, who was Nathalie’s junior by three years and had arrived in Paris with her parents in 1919, met with overnight success in 1929 for her novel David Golder, which tells the story of a Russian-Jewish émigré financier, his disaffected wife, and their spoiled daughter. A stage adaptation of the novel followed in 1930, and a successful lm version in 1931. Her novella, The Ball, was published in 1930, clinching Némirovsky’s reputation as a rising literary star. She also had an active link with the Russian language, and David Golder appeared in Russian translation in 1930, while The Ball and another novella were published in Russian by Parabola, Polina’s publisher, in 1931.

Elsa Triolet, Nathalie’s senior by four years, had settled in France, but she was still writing in Russian and publishing in the Soviet Union. Nina Berberova, one year younger than Nathalie (but not Jewish), had moved to Paris in 1925 and, like Triolet, was also writing in Russian. In other words, at the time Nathalie was embarking on Tropisms, her Russian émigré contemporaries were still drawing on a Russian identity, frequently describing Russian and Russian-émigré worlds, and were still at least partially reliant on the Russian language.

Nathalie’s Russian identity, by contrast, would play no part in her literary one. In later years, although she would always mention to interviewers that she was born in Russia, she would insist—albeit with some exaggeration—that French was her first language. In this way, her Russianness insured her against any unwanted association with French literary groupings, while her rootedness in the French language served to mark her off from her Russian-born contemporaries.

It is striking that several of these Russian writers were women. French women had also been writing in greater numbers since the early 1920s, many of them publishing prolifically. However, the price they paid for this increased literary presence was marginalization into a category of “women’s writing”—mostly romances and autobiographical fiction—addressed to women readers.

A history of women’s writing in France published in 1929, and of which Nathalie owned a copy, asserted that women were capable only of personal forms of expression, such as letters, lyric poetry, and confessional novels, and that they had no capacity for either the objective detachment or the formal perfection that real literary writing demanded. The author—a man—concludes that they succeed only when their work was “guided by men.” This was not exactly encouragement for the would-be writer.

The names of many of the women writers from this time have largely been forgotten, and the only two to be taken seriously were the poet Anna de Noailles and Colette, both a generation older than Nathalie. Colette, the creator of Claudine, wrote mostly about girls and women, and had recently published two semi-autobiographical works, Break of Day (1928) and Sido (1930), based on memories of her mother.

She was always happy to flaunt her femininity, and in 1932 she even opened a beauty salon selling her own line of products. Nothing could have been more antipathetic to Nathalie, who never mentions Colette. This is despite the fact that she would have had reasons for doing so after Lena married Hervé Gauthier­-Villars, a naval officer, who was the nephew of Colette’s first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars.

What all these writers—the Russians and the women—have in common is a willingness to draw directly on events in their own lives, and to do so largely by means of conventionally realist representation and equally conventional forms of narrative expression. For those who made a living from their pen, this literary mode was reinforced by the need to appeal to a broad readership. The modesty of Nathalie’s literary beginnings meant that her writing did not have to sell, and she was able to rely on Raymond’s support, both financial and emotional, while she pursued her experiment with the “tropisms” that did not yet bear the name.

In her essay A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, Virginia Woolf recommends financial autonomy as well as the eponymous room for any woman wanting to write according to her own flights, and she gives a figure of 500 pounds per year—the equivalent of around 30 thousand pounds today—as the financial price of literary independence. By deciding to write, Nathalie was making herself dependent on Raymond’s income, but since she was earning very little money as a lawyer, her decision to abandon her career did not have a significant impact on family finances.

In any case, thanks to her father’s colourant factory, the Établissements Tcherniak, which in 1929 had become a joint-stock company, Nathalie now had a small private income. The capital value of the company was estimated at two and a half million francs—the equivalent of around one million euros today—and in 1932 Nathalie and Lili each received a thousand shares. Jacques received the same number when he reached his majority in 1937.

The room of her own was a different question. Nathalie never mentioned where her earliest Tropisms were written. For her, the place that mattered most was the one she found in the writing itself.

As she later said, “I was in an area that was all my own, that belonged to me. I felt at home there,” and she often used territorial metaphors when speaking of her writing. It was also a place free of sexual difference. She always insisted that the tropism itself is an ungendered phenomenon, and that the writing through which she pursued it was equally ungendered.

As she told Sonia Rykiel, when she wrote, she was “neither man nor woman, nor cat nor dog.” And, she adds, “I never think about myself as a woman, I create a mix [je me mélange], I refuse to talk about women’s writing, to join movements that separate men and women, it against my opinions.” It was genderlessness rather than androgyny that she sought.

These remarks date from 1984, when women’s writing—or écri­ture féminine—meant something rather different from what it did in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but throughout her life Nathalie remained adamant in her refusal of all female identity in writing. In other ways, especially in these years, she was happy to maintain a female identity in her dress, and it’s a nice coincidence that the question of gender arises with Sonia Rykiel, who like Nathalie was Russian and also wrote novels, but was primarily a dress designer.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nathalie used to wear couturier outfits, sold off after being worn by models in fashion shows. She had the perfect figure for them, and Claude Sarraute recalls her mother wearing designs by Poiret, which she later lent to the narrator’s aunt in her novel Martereau.

Tropisms, written very slowly with numerous revisions over the course of the next six years, is a remarkably assured achievement for a first publication. Each of the 19 texts focuses on a momentary impression experienced by an anonymous character, sometimes male, sometimes female, often in the context of family or domestic circumstance.

Sarraute always insisted that the tropism itself is an ungendered phenomenon, and that the writing through which she pursued it was equally ungendered.

There are some glancingly autobiographical references to the “simultaneously depleted and protected existence” of exiles who do not allow themselves to resurrect memories of childhood in a distant but unnamed city, to the streets and squares of the Paris of Nathalie’s early years, to England, to a thinly disguised Pierre Janet in the Collège de France, to the lives of women between shopping and tea parties, to Van Gogh exhibitions, and to more earnest young women who have read Ulysses and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

But the autobiographical dimension isn’t signaled as such and is tangential to a writing whose main focus is a mental space with which Nathalie was familiar from her own inner life.

The texts—none more than three or four pages long—are not chapters in a novel nor short stories, nor are they quite prose poems in the manner of the two poets Nathalie most admired, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. (It wasn’t until later that she came across the work of Francis Ponge.) They are a kind of synthesis of the long gestation out of which they emerged, from her schoolwork in French and philosophy, her encounter with Janet, the examples of Thomas Mann and Gide, the explorations of Dostoevsky, Proust, Rilke, and Virginia Woolf, and the oratory contest for young lawyers.

And they laid the ground for all Nathalie’s future work through their subject matter, their image repertoire, their style, and above all their limited length. A short span suited her talents and her slow rate of composition.

Speaking of her writing method in an interview in 1972, she commented on this question of pace and explained that her writing was “an extremely slow process. . . . The difficulty comes from the elusive character of the tropisms and the lightning speed with which they pass through us. So it’s important not to work too quickly, because, if I did, I might miss these movements, which the conscious mind tends in any case to refuse to register. But it’s also important not to work too slowly, in case this shifting substance becomes congealed.”

By 1972 she had long since reconciled herself to the conditions she had found to be necessary for her writing, but it was over the course of the composition of Tropisms that these habits were established.

She also set great store by the quality of her writing, which, for all that she now felt liberated from the constraints of written French style and had adopted many of the characteristics of the spoken idiom, still needed to be the fruit of “work.” Her texts are carried by the sense of movement she sought to capture and can be read with ease, but they bear multiple rereadings and, like poetry, are best read slowly or even aloud, the way she herself heard them in her head. As she later explained, “It’s a writing that I hear as I write. I have to hear the words by articulating them inwardly.”

She always tested her work by reading it aloud to Raymond. He rarely commented, and it was enough for Nathalie to hear herself reading to him for her to know whether she was on the right track. His encouragement was essential, but it was not enough to sustain her initial impetus. And despite the sense that she had finally discovered a place of her own, she seems to have lost her way, and the writing came to a halt.


Excerpted from Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between by Ann Jefferson. Copyright © 2020 by Ann Jefferson. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.