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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999) - born Nathalie Ilyinincha Tcherniak


Russian born French novelist and literary critic, whose works have been published in some 24 languages. Natalie Sarraute became one of the pioneers and leading theorists of the nouveau roman with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, and Michel Butor. She discarded conventional ideas about plot, chronology, characterization and the narrative point of view. In Tropismes (1939, Tropisms) she used a series of brief passages, "tropisms", which, according to Sarraute, govern behaviour and become the unifying thread throughout her novels.

['Tropisms' are] "...things that are not said and the movements that cross our consciousness very rapidly; they are the basis of most of our life and our relations with others  everything that happens within us which is not spoken by the interior monologue and which is transmitted by sensations." (from Tropisms)

Nathalie Sarraute was born Natalia Ilyincha Tchderniak in the town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Russia, into an assimilated Jewish family. Her father, Ilya Evseevich Tcherniak, a chemical engineer, ran a small dye-manufacturing business. Polina Osipovna, her mother, bacame a writer. She published under the pseudonym of Vikhrovsky two novels, Ikh Zhizn (Their Life) and Vremya (Time), and some short stories. Sarraute had a sister, Elena, who died very young.  Her parents separated when Natacha (as she was known) was two. Her mother took her to Paris. From the age of eight, she lived with her father, who had settled in France.

Sarraute studied literature and law at the Sorbonne, spent one year at Oxford in 1921, and continued her studies of legal science in Berlin, before becoming a member of the French bar (1926-41). In 1925 she married a fellow law student, Raymond Sarraute; they had three daughters. Sarraute read everything she wrote to her husband: "I would know at onece what worked and what didn't." When Raymond Sarraute died in 1985, she found herself for the first time without someone, whose reactions he could count on.

Until about 1940, Sarraute practised law, and then became a full-time writer. During the Nazi occupation of France, Sarraute, being Jewish, was forced to go into hiding – she posed as the governess of her own three daughters. When Samuel Beckett, who was involved in the Paris Resistance and was afraid of being arrested, asked her to hide him in her attic she said: "My father is hiding there." So Beckett spent for about a year in the attic with Sarraute's father. (The Playwright's Workbook by Jean-Claude van Italie, 2001, p. 63)

Sarraute's first book, Tropismes, a collection of twenty-four brief sketches, appeared first in 1939, but gained more understanding when it was republished in 1957. She had already in 1932 started to write the work. Sarraute indicated that the words are the verbal translation of a non-verbal communication. The sketches presented nameless people caught up in the web of their interdependence. With "tropisms" she referred to inner movements of the mind, which are involuntary and which guide our behavior. Psychologizing is rejected; the emphasis is on speech and gestures, the "dramatic actions". 

In the 1950s and '60s Sarraute developed the ideas of the new novel in such works as Portrait d'un Inconnu (1947, Portrait of a Man Unknown), an 'anti-novel' according to Jean-Paul Sartre, in which she took from Balzac's Eugénie Grandet the central theme – the relationship of a miserly father and his daughter. The characters have no fixed personalities and undermine the reliability of the narrator's observations. Narratorial norms are changing as our observations and moods change. Sarraute, like other theorists of the nouveau roman, accepted the messiness of the external world.

This view was articulated by Alain Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel (1963): "How could style have remained motionless, fixed, when everything around it was in evolution – even revolution – during the last hundred and fifty years? Flaubert wrote the new novel of 1860, Proust the new novel of 1910. The writer must proudly consent to bear his own date, knowing that there are no masterpieces in eternity, but only works in history; and that they survive only to the degree that they have left the past behind them and heralded the future." Mary McCarthy promoted Sarraute for the Prix International de Littérature, which she won in 1964.

Martereau (1953) was a story about the internal tensions of a family. The family friend Martereau is a solid, calm man, whom Sarraute uses as the focus of the inner monologue, and whose character she gradually disintegrates, along with other members of the family, a stone-hearted uncle, the silent mother, the unpredictable daughter and the insecure young man living at his uncle's house. Finally there is nothing much left of Martereau's character than a bundle of possibilities. Claude Mauriac described the work as "ce livre étonnant," and one of the most original novels that he had read for a long time.

Le planétarium (1959, The Planetarium) eliminated the ever-present narrator for a more suggesting representation of the inner world – the novel can also be read as a parable of the creative process and an ironic comedy of manners. The aspiring writer becomes only one among a number of voices. Many pages are devoted to the contrast between the bergère and leather armchairs as manifestations of different cultural values. Sarraute deliberately made it difficult for the reader to determine from whose perspective her stories are told. Noteworthy, though her central characters rarely had names, they were often male, the masculine was for her the "unmarked" gender.

L'Ère du soupçon (1956, The Age of Suspicion) is a collection of Sarraute's critical essays, in which she attempted to analyze what she as an author tried to achieve in her work. Sarraute dismissed the need for a cohesive narrative, and welcomed the death of the "character" in fiction, to be replaced by "a matter as nameless as blood, a magma." She argued that Virginia Woolf's work is the very opposite of hers: ". . . the consciousnesses which she depicts are consciousnesses that are open to the world and into which the world is absorbed. In my work they are not passive, they are always in a state of agitation like souls in torment, always searching for something, engaged in conflict, strugge and effort."

Sarraute published L'Enfance (1983, Childhood) when she was over eighty. It is a story of the childhood of a young girl who divides her time between her divorced parents in Russia and France. Denying that the book is an autobiography, she argued: "People who write their adult autobiographies claim to write their whole lives. First of all they deform it completely, we always see ourselves in a certain light [ . . . ] it is as if Landru wrote his memoirs. [ . . . ] He would tell us how much he loved his wife and child [ . . . ] this would be correct. [ . . . ] He would simply leave out the seven women in the oven. And this is how autobiographies are made." (From Split to Screened Selves: French and Francophone Autobiography in the Third Person by Rachel Gabara, 2006, p. 27)

Again Sarraute uses short flashes from her past, and torn lines from discussions, the colors of her memories are faded like in an old photograph. Sarraute is constantly questioning herself: "Try to remember... something must have happened..." "Be careful, now you are exaggeration..." The book was adapted for the stage in Broadway, starring Glenn Close. "Sarraute's voice casts its own spell – a cross between a French hypnotist and a Russian bear's – and Mlle Benmussa has squeezed as much action out of, or into, stasis as is humanly possible. . . . Still, when after an hour and a half of exquisitely intelligent torture, the author informed us that she had reached the age of 11, I sighed, "Funny, I would have sworn 85."" ('Not Quite Close-shavian' by John Simon, in New York Magazine, June 10, 1985)

Since 1964 Sarraute wrote radio and stage plays, in which she integrated undercurrents of half conversation into a commonplace banal conversation. Often the actors speak words which would normally remain unspoken. Although Sarraute's early works were precursors of the New Novel, some critics have placed her in the great tradition of Proust and Henry James as a theoretician of a psychological novel. She was also interested in Paul Valéry and Gustave Flaubert; her essays on these writers were republished in book form in 1986. Sarraute defended in the essays the novelist's need for formal experimentation. Sarraute died on October 19, 1999, in Paris. Her last novel, Here (1995), examined the nature of memory, efforts to be patient, to hope, when reality is formless and full of holes.

For further reading: Nathalie Sarraute by M. Cranaki and Y. Belaval (1965); Natalie Sarraute by R.Z. Temple (1968); Natalie Sarraute; ou. La recherce de l'authenticité by M. TisonBraun (1971); French Fiction Today by L.S. Roudiez (1972); Natalie Sarraute by Gretchen Ross Besser (1979); Nathalie Sarraute: The War of the Words by V.Minogue (1981); The Novels of Nathalie Sarraute by Helen Watson-Williams (1981); Sarraute Romanciere by Sabine Raffy (1988); Sarraute, Le Planetarium by Roger McLure (1988); Natalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader by Sarah Barbour (1993); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Natalie Sarraute: Metaphor, Fairy-Tale and the Feminine of the Text by John Phillips (1994); Nathalie Sarraute by Bettina Knapp (1994); Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance by Emer O'Beirne (1999); Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference by Ann Jefferson (2000); Psyche of Feminism: Sand, Colette, Sarraute by Catherine M. Peebles (2003); Telling Anxiety: Anxious Narration in the Work of Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, Nathalie Sarraute, and Anne Hébert by Jennifer Willging (2007); Echo's Voice: the Theatres of Sarraute, Duras, Cixous and Renaude by Mary Noonan (2014); Le roman moderne: le monologue intérieur, le point de vue et le discours indirect libre: Marcel Proust, Claude Simon et Nathalie Sarraute by Houcine Bouslahi (2018); Unbecoming Language: Anti-identitarian French Feminist Fictions by Annabel L. Kim (2018); Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between by Ann Jefferson (2020) - Suom.: Sarrautelta on myös suomennettu näytelmiä ja kuunnelmia. Nouveau roman, see also Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor.

Selected bibliography:

  • Tropismes, 1939
    - Tropisms (translated by Maria Jolas, 1967)
    - Tropismeja (suom. Leena Kirstinä, 1968)
  • Portrait d'un inconnu, 1949 (preface by Jean-Paul Sartre)
    - Portrait of a Man Unknown (translated by Maria Jolas, 1958)
  • Martereau: roman, 1953
    - Martereau: A Novel (translated by Maria Jolas, 1959)
    - Ystäväni Martreau (suom. Inkeri Tuomikoski, 1988)
  • L'ère du soupçon: essais sur le roman, 1956
    - The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel (translated by Maria Jolas, 1963)
  • Le Planétarium, 1959
    - The Planetarium  (translated by Maria Jolas, 1960)
    - Planetaario (suom. Kyllikki Cle´ment, 1965)
  • Les Fruits d'ór, 1963
    - The Golden Fruits  (translated by Maria Jolas, 1964)
    - Kultaiset hedelmät (suom. Pentti Holappa ja Olli-Matti Ronimus, 1964)
  • Le Silence, 1967 (play)
    - Silence, and The Lie (translated by Maria Jolas, 1969; in Collected Plays, 1981)  
  • Le Mesonge, 1967 (play)
    - Silence, and The Lie (translated by Maria Jolas, 1969; in Collected Plays, 1981)  
  • Entre la Vie et la mort, 1968
    - Between Life and Death: A Novel (translated by Maria Jolas, 1969)
  • Isma; ou, Ce qui s'appelle rien. Suivi de Le silence et Le mensonge, 1970
  • Vous les entendez?, 1972
    - Do You Hear Them? (translated by Maria Jolas, 1973)
  • Isma, 1973 (play)
    - Izzuma (in Collected Plays, translated from the French by Maria Jolas and Barbara Wright, 1980)
  • C'est beau, 1975 (play)
    - It's Beautiful (in Collected Plays, translated from the French by Maria Jolas and Barbara Wright, 1980)  
  • Disent les imbéciles, 1976
    - "Fools say": A Novel (translated by Maria Jolas, 1977)
  • Théâtre, 1978 - Collected Plays (translated from the French by Maria Jolas and Barbara Wright, 1980)
  • Elle ast lá, 1978 (play)
  • L'usage de la parole, 1980
    - The Use of Speech (translated by Barbara Wright, 1983)
  • Collected Plays, 1980
  • Pour un oui ou pour un non: pièce, 1982 (radio play)
    - For No Good Reason (translated by Kaye Mortley, 1985 ) / Just for Nothing (translated by Kaye Mortley, drawings by Ruark Lewis, 1997)
  • L'Enfance, 1983
    - Childhood (translated by Barbara Wright, 1984)
    - Lapsuus (suom. Annikki Suni, 1984)
  • Chilhood, 1985 (play, prod. in New York)
  • Paul Valéry et l'enfant d'éléphant - Flaubert le précurseur, 1986
  • Natalie Sarraute, qui êtes-vous?, 1987 (with Simone Benmussa)
  • Tu ne t'aimes pas, 1990
    - You Don't Love Yourself (translated by Barbara Wright, 1990)
  • Ici, 1995
    - Here: A Novel, 1997 (translated by Barbara Wright, 1997)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1996 (ed. Jean-Yves Tadié, Viviane Forrester, et al.) 
  • Ouvrez, 1997
  • Entretiens avec Nathalie Sarraute, 1999 (with Simone Benmussa)
  • Lettres d'Amérique, 2017 (édition établie et annotée par Carrie Landfried et Olivier Wagner; présentation d'Olivier Wagner)

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