Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance

Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance

Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance

Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance

Synopsis

Spanning seven decades, Nathalie Sarraute's literary career has established her as one of the most prominent and highly respected French writers of the twentieth century. From the outset she has sought, through consistent formal innovation, to develop a mode of literary expression adequate to an endlessly mobile and mutable self stifled as much in public discourse as in traditional fictional characterization. Central to that enterprise is the dream of full and transparent communication with another, and ultimately with an ideal reader. This study is the first to explore in detail the interaction between the increasing move towards dialogue in Sarraute's prose works (Tu ne t'aimes pas is an extreme example), and the dialogue those works initiate with their readers. Intensely aware of the pitfalls of communication, both spoken and written, Sarraute's prose writings illuminate not only the dynamics of conversation, but also those of the reading process.

Excerpt

Few living writers can embody as well as does Nathalie Sarraute the evolution of French literature, specifically (though not solely) of the novel, across the whole of the twentieth century. Born in 1900, she is as old as the century itself and has been writing for a full two-thirds of it (she began her first collection of short prose texts, Tropismes, in 1932 and published her latest work, Ouvrez, in 1997). Between the 1940s and early 1970s her critical essays and public lectures, pursuing lines of enquiry already opened up by her novels, took issue with the relationship of fiction to reality, the ever-changing nature of that reality, and the imperative for the novelist to create new modes of representation to take account of the constant transformations in our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Profoundly ingrained in her writing is her response, as reader, to those Modernist writers whose novels shaped contemporary fiction, and whom of course she first read as contemporaries: above all, Proust, Joyce, and Woolf (among nineteenth-century precursors she emphasizes Dostoevsky and--to a limited extent--Flaubert). Thus the publication by Gallimard in 1996 of her (Euvres complètes in the renowned Pléiade series offers a unique retrospective on one prominent writer's engagements with, and contribution to, the development of fiction throughout this century. (They are of course already incomplete, for they preceded the publication of Ouvrez in late 1997.) Germaine Brée sums that contribution up in a recent essay:

Dans sa 'traversée du siècle', Nathalie Sarraute a confronté toutes les grandes questions qui se sont posées dans le domaine du roman: nature du 'sujet' du 'moi et de l'autre', de la narration et de sa mise en œuvre dans l'écriture; et, sans recours à une théorie, elle les a inscrites dans son œuvre, calmement, un peu ironiquement bien entendu, mais sans arrogance. (Brée 1996: 42)

These 'great questions'--the nature of the self, especially in its relations with others, and the kind of narration which can take account of it--are integral to my study, over the coming pages, of the role of dialogue in Nathalie Sarraute's prose works. Dialogue, moreover, is considered not only as it features within those works . . .

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