Partners in Slime: The Liquid and the Viscous in Sarraute and Sartre

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Nathalie Sarraute would not have appreciated this essay, because in it I propose to compare, as other critics have done in the past, her work with that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sarraute's testiness about the nature of her intellectual relationship with Sartre simply "oozes" (in keeping with the theme of this essay) from the pages of a 1989 interview with Francoise Dupuy-Sullivan ("Dialogue avec Nathalie Sarraute") in which Sarraute describes her first contact with Sartre. At her publisher's suggestion, she says, she sent him a copy of her first text, Tropismes (1939). He responded to her with "un mot, tres gentil," telling her that the text interested him very much (188). She met him in person through a mutual friend during the war when Sartre was organizing "des groupes de resistance. C'etaient plutot," Sarraute then corrects herself, "des recherches theoriques sur ce qu'on ferait quand les Allemands partiraient" (188). As a Jew, Sarraute herself had had to go into hiding during the latter part of the war, and the irony which fills the pages of her fiction seems also present in this last comment. (1) Sartre's interest in her work, she goes on, prompted him to provide a laudatory preface for her second publication, Portrait d'un inconnu (1947) (188). When asked by Dupuy-Sullivan why she thinks Sartre admired Portrait, Sarraute replies: "Dans ce livre, les choses sont en train de se faire. Tout est en perpetuel devenir. Cela lui avait paru tres original [...]" (189). Yet her novel seemed to him, she also believed, "comme une sorte d'experience a part et qui ne pourrait pas etre recommencee. Apres ca, il faudrait ecrire des romans comme tout le monde, comme il en ecrivait lui-meme a ce moment" (189). Because she had only read La Nausee (1938), she says, after having already begun writing Tropismes, and because Sartre, unlike her, wrote novels "comme tout le monde," Sarraute firmly asserts that, "[i]l est donc absoluments impossible et aberrant de parler d'une influence quelle qu'elle soit de Sartre sur moi. C'est tout a fait faux. Lui-meme n'y aurait pas cru" (189). Dupuy-Sullivan had herself not yet spoken of such an influence, but Sarraute seems here to have smelled the question in the air and to have thus attempted to arrest its launch.

When Dupuis-Sullivan characterizes as "surprising" the 1947 publication in Les Temps Modernes, the literary review Sartre had created after the war, of two of Sarraute's critical essays "cote a cote" with what would later become chapters of Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la Litterature? (1948), Sarraute's response is unequivocal, even if the implication of the question (that Sarraute and Sartre had worked together on their essays? that Sartre had somehow guided the writing of Sarraute's essays?) is not entirely clear. "Pourquoi [surprenant]?" Sarraute demands. "D'abord ce n'est pas la meme date, ce n'est pas cote a cote. C'est dans un autre volume des Temps modernes. [...] Ce n'etait pas ecrit en meme temps," she insists (189-90). From this point on, Sarraute's answers to Dupuy-Sullivan's questions concerning Sartre become for the most part increasingly terse and increasingly negative, as the following excerpt shows:

   F.D.S.: Quel role avez-vous joue en 1962 lors des tentatives de ce
   que l'on a pu appeler coexistence culturelle entre ecrivains
   occidentaux et ecrivains sovietiques et quels furent vos rapport
   dans ce cadre avec Jean-Paul Sartre?
   N.S.: Absolument aucun, je ne m'en suis pas occupee.
   F.D.S: Pouvez-vous decrire la situation de l'ecrivain telle que
   vous l'avez ressentie en 1947 [a situation which Sartre outlines
   in Qu'est-ce que la litterature?] et comment vous semble-t-elle
   avoir evolue depuis?
   N.S.: Je ne peux absolument pas repondre a cette question, je ne la
   comprends meme pas ...
   F.D.S.: Quelle place accordez-vous au contexte historique dans la
   creation litteraire?
   N.S.: Chez moi, je ne le vois pas.
   F.D.S: Y a-t-il certaines expressions picturales qui vous
   paraissent donner un equivalent des tropismes? … 

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