Interviews

Nathalie Sarraute, The Art of Fiction No. 115

Interviewed by Shusha Guppy, Jason Weiss

Nathalie Sarraute was eighty-three when she published her first best-seller, Childhood. Unlike her previous books, it was an autobiographical work. Memories from her Russian and French childhood emerge from a word or a gesture recalled, burn brightly for a moment, and fade. Quietly the mosaic takes shape, in her compassionate regard for the parents whose early divorce divided her love.

She was born in 1900 in Ivanovo, near Moscow. Her first book, Tropisms, a collection of brief texts that appeared in 1939, marked a fresh direction in French literature. She describes tropisms as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” They happen in an instant, and apprehending them in the rush of human interactions demands painstaking attention. Tropisms became the key to all her subsequent work.

Highly respected in France, Sarraute has been translated into twenty-four languages; her fourteen books, including eight novels, most of which are available in English, have been published by Braziller and Riverrun. Since the 1960s, she has been a regular traveler, invited to universities around the world. Her husband, whom she met in law school, always accompanied her on these trips. She visits the United States every couple of years, and was last in New York in September of 1986 for the American premiere of her play Over Nothing At All.

For the past twenty years Sarraute has gone every morning to write at the same neighborhood café in Paris. The following interview took place at her home in the sixteenth arrondissement, near the Musée d'Art Moderne. 

 

INTERVIEWER

You wrote your first novel at the age of twelve, then nothing until you were thirty-two. Why?

NATHALIE SARRAUTE

My mother wrote all the time, and to parrot her I wrote a “novel” full of all the platitudes I had read in love stories at the time. I showed it to a friend of my mother who said, Before writing novels one should learn to spell! Psychologists would see in that episode a typical childhood trauma. Actually, I think I did not write until much later because I had nothing to say.

At the lycée I liked writing essays because the subjects were imposed from outside. It made me realize how pleasant it was writing well turned-out sentences in a classical style—one was on equal terms with the classics, safe in their company. Whereas in my own writing I jump into a void, without any protection. I stumble and stammer, without anything to reassure me.

The traditional novel, with its plot and characters, etcetera, didn't interest me. I had received the shock of Proust in 1924, the revelation of a whole mental universe, and I thought that after Proust one could not go back to the Balzacian novel. Then I read Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etcetera . . . I thought Mrs. Dalloway was a masterpiece; Joyce's interior monologue was a revelation. In fact, there was a whole literature that I thought changed all that was done before. But as I said, I myself didn't write because I had nothing to say then. 

INTERVIEWER

You started writing Tropisms when you were thirty-two; it is a short book of twenty-four pieces, yet it took you seven years.

SARRAUTE

It took five years, which is still long. Then I spent two years trying to find a publisher for it. Finally a very good publisher, Robert Lafont, who had discovered Céline and Queneau took it. He published it in the same collection as Queneau.

INTERVIEWER

How did you arrive at the form for those first short texts?

SARRAUTE

The first one came out just how it is in the book. I felt it like that. Some of the others I worked on a lot.

INTERVIEWER

And why did you choose the name Tropisms?

SARRAUTE

It was a term that was in the air, it came from the sciences, from biology, botany. I thought it fit the interior movement that I wanted to show. So when I had to come up with a title in order to show it to publishers, I took that. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you know what they were at the time, these tropisms? How did you know when you'd found one?

SARRAUTE

I didn't always know, I might discover it in the writing. I didn't try to define them, they just came out like that.

INTERVIEWER

The tropisms often seem to work through a poetic sensibility.

SARRAUTE

I've always thought that there is no border, no separation, between poetry and prose. Michaux, is he prose or poetry? Or Francis Ponge? It's written in prose, and yet it's poetry, because it's the sensation that is carried across by way of the language.

INTERVIEWER

With the tropisms, did you feel that it was fiction, did you wonder what to call it?

SARRAUTE

I didn't pose myself such questions, really. I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That's what I tried to do in Tropisms. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you sense at the time that that was the direction your work would go? 

SARRAUTE

I felt that a path was opening before me, a path that excited me. As if I'd found my own terrain, upon which I could move forward, where no one had gone prior to me. Where I was in charge. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you already wondering how to use that in other contexts such as a novel?

SARRAUTE

Not at all. I thought only of writing short texts like that. I couldn't imagine it possible to write a long novel. And afterwards, it was so difficult finding these texts; each time it was like starting a new book all over again; so I told myself perhaps it would be interesting to take two semblances of characters who were entirely commonplace, as in Balzac, a miser and his daughter, and to show all the tropisms that develop inside of them. That's how I wrote Portrait of a Man Unknown.

INTERVIEWER

In effect, one could say that all or most tropisms we might find in people could also be found in a single person. 

SARRAUTE

Absolutely. I'm convinced that everyone has it all in himself, at that level. On the exterior level of action, I don't for a minute think that Hitler is like Joan of Arc. But I think that at that deep level of tropisms Hitler or Stalin must have experienced the same tropisms as anyone else.

INTERVIEWER

The tropisms would seem to enter the domain of the social sciences as well.

SARRAUTE

Yes. I've become more accessible, besides. My work used to be entirely closed to people. For a long time people didn't get inside there; they couldn't manage to really penetrate these books.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that is?

SARRAUTE

Because it's difficult. Because I plunge in directly, without giving any reference points. One doesn't know where one is, or who is who. I speak right away of the essential things, and that's very difficult. In addition, people have the habit of looking for the framework of the traditional novel—characters, plots—and they don't find it; they're lost.

INTERVIEWER

That brings up the question of how to read these books. You do without plot, for example. 

SARRAUTE

There is a plot, if you like, but it's not the usual plot. It is the plot made up of these movements between human beings. If one takes an interest in what I do, one follows a sort of movement of dramatic actions that takes place at the level of the tropisms and of the dialogue. It's a different dramatic action than that of the traditional novel.

INTERVIEWER

You've said that you prefer a relatively continuous reading of your books. But all reading is a somewhat fragmentary experience. With a traditional novel, when one picks it up again to continue reading, there are the characters and the plot to situate oneself, to discover where one has left off. In your books, do you see other ways of keeping track of where one was?

SARRAUTE

I don't know. I don't know how one reads it. I can't put myself in the reader's place, or know what he's looking for, what he sees. I have no idea. I never think of him when I'm writing. Otherwise, I'd be writing things that suit him and please him. And for years he didn't like it, he wasn't interested.

INTERVIEWER

Even after several books you weren't discouraged?

SARRAUTE

No, not at all. I was always supported, all the same, from the start. With Portrait of a Man Unknown, I was supported by Sartre. At the time Sartre was the only person who was doing something about literature; he had a review. My husband was also tremendously supportive, from the very start. He was a marvelous reader for me; he always encouraged me a great deal. That was a lot. It suffices to have one reader, who realizes what you want to do. So it was a great solitude, if you like, but deep down inside it wasn't solitude. Sartre was impassioned by Portrait of a Man Unknown. So that was very encouraging. Then when Martereau was done, Marcel Arland was very excited and had it published with Gallimard. He was editing the Nouvelle Revue Française at the time. I always had a few enthusiastic readers. When Tropisms came out, I received an enthusiastic letter from Max Jacob, who at the time was very admired as a poet. I can't say it was a total solitude.

INTERVIEWER

Did Sartre or others try to claim you as an existentialist?

SARRAUTE

No, not at all. He said, I had better write a preface for it, otherwise you won't find a publisher, because he had become very famous by then. But despite his preface nobody wanted the book, and in the end a small publisher took it. It had only one little notice and was ignored. Later Sartre told me, If you persist in writing like this you'll sacrifice your life. 

INTERVIEWER

Simone de Beauvoir, while she didn't mind Sartre being surrounded by, or even having affairs with pretty actresses and secretaries, was said to be terribly jealous of women of superior intelligence who got close to him, and she broke your friendship. Is that true?

SARRAUTE

It is true that she separated us completely. But I heard that she couldn't bear Sartre having an intellectual relationship with anyone, male or female. She caused the break with Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, Camus . . . She wanted to be the only one.

But I liked Sartre very much. He had an attentiveness that denoted generosity, and I think he was warm. Simone de Beauvoir, on the other hand, was cold and distant, and as they were very close it colored his attitudes too, sometimes. He listened marvelously.

INTERVIEWER

That might explain why some women were seduced by him, despite his physique.

SARRAUTE

I don't know, as I certainly wasn't one of them! I liked him as a friend, but found him physically one of the most repulsive men I had ever seen—it was terrible! The physical aspect of a man was always very important to me.

INTERVIEWER

What about your own feminism?

SARRAUTE

I militated for the women's vote in 1935. I have always been a feminist in so far as I want equal rights for women. But the idea of “women's writing” shocks me. I think that in art we are androgynous. Our brains are not different, but until now women were less educated, so they produced fewer works of art. People always compare women to each other. I was once asked at a conference what was the similarity between Marguerite Yourcenar and Marguerite Duras. I said that there was an enormous similarity: they were both called Marguerite! Otherwise there is not an iota of connection between them.

INTERVIEWER

Some people have seen a feminist bias in your work.

SARRAUTE

Imagine! But I hardly ever think of gender when I write about my characters. I often prefer he to she because he is neutral but she is only female. In The Planetarium there is an old woman who is anxious because a door-handle has been badly put on her door. Well, a young man wrote to me and that “this old lady is me!” He explained that he had just been married and moved to a new apartment, and that he was just as worked-up about some details as my character. You can imagine how pleased I was!

Some time ago I received a doctoral thesis whose subject was woman's condition in my novels! I was flabbergasted! But if I had wanted to discuss woman's condition I wouldn't have written the sort of books I have. Woman's condition is the last thing on my mind when I write.

INTERVIEWER

To return to tropisms, do you feel there are other writers who have found certain lessons in that domain? 

SARRAUTE

I don't feel I have any imitators. I think it's a domain that is too much my own.

INTERVIEWER

Would it be possible to use the tropisms in a more traditional novel? 

SARRAUTE

I don't see how. What interest would there be? Because in a more traditional novel, one shows characters with personality traits, while the tropisms are entirely minute things that take place in a few instants inside of anybody at all. What could that bring to the description of a character?

INTERVIEWER

As if at the moment of the tropisms, the character vanishes.

SARRAUTE

He disintegrates before the extraordinary complexity of the tropisms inside of him.

INTERVIEWER

Which is what happens in Martereau.

SARRAUTE

Martereau disintegrates. And in Portrait of a Man Unknown, the old man, the father, becomes so complex that the one who's looking to see inside of him abandons his quest, and at that moment we end up with a character out of the traditional novel, who ruins everything. In Martereau it's the character out of the traditional novel who disintegrates at the end. 

INTERVIEWER

Yet in The Planetarium it seems that more than ever you're using traditional characters.

SARRAUTE

On purpose. Since they are semblances it's called The Planetarium, and is made up of false stars, in imitation of the real sky. We are always for each other a star like those we see in a planetarium, diminished, reduced. So, they see each other as characters, but behind these characters that they see, that they name, there is the whole infinite world of the tropisms. Which I tried to show in there.

INTERVIEWER

Considering the interiority of your writing, has it sometimes been difficult to remain at such depths?

SARRAUTE

No, what is difficult is being on the surface. One gets bored there. There are a lot of great and admirable models who block your way. And once I rise to the surface, to do something on the surface, it's easy, but it's very tedious and disappointing. 

INTERVIEWER

You've said that with the novels you wrote the first draft directly from beginning to end. 

SARRAUTE

At first. I always have to make a beginning that's entirely finished, the first few pages must be fixed in place. Like a springboard that I take off from, I don't rework it any further. I work on it a lot, and then it's finished. But after that, I wrote from one end to the other. I used to work like that, not now. I wrote from one end to the other, in a form that was sometimes a bit rough; I found the general movements, and then I rewrote the whole thing. For a while now, though, I've been afraid of waiting two or three years like that before starting over. So, I write gradually, I finish each passage as I go along. I changed my system about six years ago, since The Use of Speech and Childhood

INTERVIEWER

In Martereau the narrator speaks of the importance of words, of what they hide. For Martereau, who is rather a traditional novelistic character, words are “hard and solid objects, of a single flow.” One would say that in your books you feel a certain seduction of words.

SARRAUTE

Yes, it's words that interest me. Inevitably. It's the very substance of my work. As a painter is interested in color and form.

INTERVIEWER

Some say the most important problem in the novel is time. In your book of essays, The Age of Suspicion, you said that “the time of the tropisms was no longer that of real life but of an immeasurably expanded present.” In the novels, then, time is surely complicated.

SARRAUTE

There are always instants. It takes place in the present finally. I'm concerned with these interior movements; I'm not concerned with time. 

INTERVIEWER

Is that because you often do without plot?

SARRAUTE

Completely. It has to do with a dramatic development of these interior movements—that's the time. There is no exterior reference.

INTERVIEWER

So then it's a sort of freedom from time.

SARRAUTE

Time is absent, if you like. 

INTERVIEWER

How was it you realized you could do without plot in the first place?

SARRAUTE

The question never posed itself for me. Given what I was interested in, plot didn't enter into it. I was involved as with a poem; one writes a poem and isn't concerned with such matters as plot. It was a free territory; there were no pre-established categories that I was obliged to enter into. 

INTERVIEWER

In effect there are quite a few correspondences with poetry in your work.

SARRAUTE

I hope so. There was a book written about Between Life and Death by an Australian who called it a “poetry of discourse.” He called it a novelistic poetry. Not a poetic novel, because that's been done.

INTERVIEWER

Have you read a lot of poetry?

SARRAUTE

Not especially. I've read some. You know, outside reading has not played a big role in my work.

INTERVIEWER

Well, what sort of reading was important for you?

SARRAUTE

What really turned me around was reading Proust—it was a revelation of a whole world—and reading Joyce too. The interior monologue of Joyce. They're things without which I wouldn't have written as I do. We always start from our predecessors. If I'd written in the eighteenth century, I wouldn't have written like that. There had to be writers like that before me who opened up such realms. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you fairly young when you read them?

SARRAUTE

Yes. I read Proust when I was twenty-four, and Joyce at about twenty-six.

INTERVIEWER

In one of the essays you quote Katherine Mansfield's phrase, “this terrible desire to establish contact.” But once a person takes off on a more experimental path, like yours for example, what becomes of that need? Were you yourself thinking along such lines? 

SARRAUTE

No; when I work I never ever define from the outside; I don't qualify what I'm doing. I'm looking to see what is felt, what we feel. I don't know what it is, and that's why it interests me—precisely because I don't know exactly what it is. Those were theoretical essays; they have nothing to do with my work when I write. I don't put myself at that distance, I'm entirely inside. 

INTERVIEWER

In the essay “The Age of Suspicion,” you said that the novel “has become the place of the reciprocal mistrust” of the reader and the writer. Do you think that with the contemporary novel that mistrust has gotten deeper, more serious?

SARRAUTE

Listen, it's an entirely personal question. I'm not terribly interested—except when I'm reading Agatha Christie or novels that carry me away—in the personalities of the characters or in the plot. When I see a novel written in that form, it might amuse me, it can be slices of life or descriptions of manners, but I can't say that it interests me as a writer. There are those who like that, obviously; people do continue to write in that way.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel, for example, that the contemporary novel has become more conservative?

SARRAUTE

There was a period when we fell back, in a state of joy, to the tradition. There was a strong academic tendency, in the theater as well, and everywhere. And I think all the same we're getting out of that once again. The admiration for academicism is declining.

INTERVIEWER

If there is such a thing as an evolution of the novel, do you see it as a one-way street? 

SARRAUTE

I'm not a critic, you know. I only read what interests me, what passes my way. I don't have any opinion on the current evolution of literature. I think that the writers who were grouped under the term nouveau roman have all continued to write, each in his way, works that have remained alive for the most part.

INTERVIEWER

On various occasions, especially in your essay on Flaubert, you've spoken about dispensing with the old accessories such as plot and characters. But are those old accessories so useless as that; are there no truths to be reached with them?

SARRAUTE

One reaches certain truths, but truths that are already known. At a level that's already known. One can describe the Soviet reality in Tolstoy's manner, but one will never manage to penetrate it further than Tolstoy did with the aristocratic society that he described. It will remain at the same level of the psyche as Anna Karenina or Prince Bolkonsky if you use the form that Tolstoy used. If you employ the form of Dostoyevsky, you will arrive at another level, which will always be Dostoyevsky's level, whatever the society you describe. That's my idea. If you want to penetrate further, you must abandon both of them and go look for something else. Form and content are the same thing. If you take a certain form, you attain a certain content with that form, not any other. 

INTERVIEWER

But even so, the form is something you've discovered each time.

SARRAUTE

Each time it has to find its form. It's the sensation that impels the form.

INTERVIEWER

In your essay “Conversation and Sub-conversation” you speak of certain ideas that Virginia Woolf and others had about the psychological novel, and you suggest that perhaps it hasn't yielded as much as they had hoped at the time. 

SARRAUTE

That was meant ironically. I agreed with her. I don't really like the word psychological, which has been used a lot, because that makes one think of traditional psychology, the analysis of feelings. But I would say that the universe of the psyche is limitless, it's infinite. So, each writer can find there what he would like. It's a universe as immense as we all are, and there are writers yet who are going to discover huge areas of the life of the psyche that we haven't brought to light.

INTERVIEWER

In the same essay you also speak of the American example as a reason to look beyond the psychological. Who were you thinking of, besides Faulkner?

SARRAUTE

The behaviorists. They were completely against that. Steinbeck, Caldwell, that wasn't psychological at all. It was because of them that psychology was despised. It had a big influence, besides, on people like Camus, with The Stranger. It was fashionable at the time to say that there was no conscience, that it held no interest.

INTERVIEWER

In “Conversation and Sub-conversation,” you particularly discuss the problem of how to write dialogues now, so that the sub-conversation may be heard. How did you arrive at your manner of reaching all those levels at once, in the way you write dialogue? Was it by a lot of experimenting?

SARRAUTE

No; that comes uniquely from intuition, it represents a big job of searching in order to reconstitute all these interior movements. To relive it. To expand it, to show it in slow motion. Because it is very fleeting. It gets erased very quickly. And it's very difficult to get a hold of.

INTERVIEWER

You've written that the traditional methods of writing dialogue couldn't work anymore.

SARRAUTE

Not for me. Because I would have to put myself at too much of a distance from the consciousness in which I dwell. I'm immersed right inside, and I try to execute the interior movements that are produced in that consciousness. And if I say, “said Henri” or “responded Jean,” I become someone who is showing the character from outside.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that marks your writing is the punctuation, which you work very carefully.

SARRAUTE

In the last few books there are a lot of ellipses; there were less of them before. I find that they prevent one from reading these movements, which are very quick and suspended, without breathing. There is need for a certain breathing when one reads it, and the ellipses create this breathing. They help in the rhythm of the sentence. It gives the sentence more flexibility.

INTERVIEWER

Let's talk about your theater work. Why did you start writing plays?

SARRAUTE

It was simply a request by the radio in Stuttgart. A young German, Werner Spiess, came to see me for the radio in Stuttgart. He asked me to write a radio play. That was in 1964. He wanted something new, in a style that wouldn't be like the usual style; it didn't matter if it were difficult even. I started by refusing. He returned a second time, and I refused again. And then I thought about it one day, and I told myself that perhaps all the same I could write a radio play, that it would be entirely a matter of the dialogue. I hadn't thought I would be able to do it, because for me the dialogues are prepared by the sub-conversation, the pre-dialogue. The dialogue only skims the surface of the sub-conversation. So, I decided everything will be in the dialogue, what is in the pre-dialogue will be in the dialogue. They later said my plays, in relation to my novels, were like a glove turned inside out. Everything that is inside, is now on the outside.

INTERVIEWER

Which play was that?

SARRAUTE

First it was Silence, then The Lie, then the four other plays. They were always performed first for foreign radio.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you put hardly any directions in the text, because they were written for the radio?

SARRAUTE

That's right, because they're not written for the stage. There's only one play where I was thinking of the stage; that was It Is There. And still, not a lot. Above all, I hear the conversations and the voices, and I don't see at all the theatrical space, the actors. All that is the job of the director. Which is a very interesting job, because everything remains to be done. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you attended rehearsals much?

SARRAUTE

Yes, I've attended rehearsals. First, with Jean-Louis Barrault, then with Claude Regy, then with Simone Benmussa. I don't have a lot to say, except for the intonations. But not about the actors' movements; that's the director's job.

INTERVIEWER

Were all the plays requests like the first one?

SARRAUTE

It was always for the radio, always the same person who asked me. Then, after the radio in Stuttgart didn't do difficult plays anymore, it was the radio in Cologne. And French radio too. Each time after having finished a novel, I rather liked writing a radio play. It distracted me, it gave me a bit of a change.

INTERVIEWER

Has the experience of writing changed much for you since you were young? Do you have different habits? 

SARRAUTE

I don't feel that it's changed. I think we always have the same difficulties with each new book; there is no acquiring of experience. Each new book is entirely another realm in which one must try to find its form and its sensations, and the difficulties are the same as at the start. I see no progression. There is no technical experience gathered for me.

INTERVIEWER

Was writing much different for you when your children were young? 

SARRAUTE

No. I started to write when the third daughter wasn't yet born, the two others were little; that played no role. I always had enough time for myself. You know, I don't believe that women of the bourgeoisie can pretend they can't write because they have children. That's an absurdity. Claudel was the French ambassador in Washington and wrote an immense body of work, and he never ceased to be ambassador and all that that represents. So, when you've got someone to take care of the children, and later when they go to school, it's impossible not to find two or three hours in the day to work. It's very different for a working-class woman or for a working-class man; it's the same problem. Not entirely the same, because the woman has still more work to do than the man. But there I understand completely that it's impossible to find time to oneself to write. One can't speak like that of women from the intellectual milieu, which is always a bourgeois milieu. Especially before—then one found whatever one wanted for taking care of the children. There was no problem as to that. Now it's become more difficult. 

INTERVIEWER

Considering then the interior quality of your writing, do you see that the fact of being a woman gave you any special access to such a state? As if that predisposed you toward the interior rather than out towards action in the world.

SARRAUTE

No, I don't think so at all. I don't think that Proust or Henry James or even James Joyce were turned elsewhere than toward the inside. It's a question of the writer's temperament.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see any sort of difference between women's writing and that of men?

SARRAUTE

No, I don't see any. I don't feel that Emily Brontë's work is an example of woman's writing, among women who truly wrote well. I don't see the difference. One says first of all, That's what it is to be a woman, and then afterwards one decides that is feminine. Henry James is always in the minute details, in his lacework. Or Proust, much more still than most women. I think that if women like Emily Brontë wanted to keep a pseudonym, they were entirely right. One cannot find a manner of writing upon which it would be possible to stick the label of feminine or masculine; it's writing pure and simple, an admirable writing, that's all. There are subjects in writing that are very feminine, which are lived, and there are women who write on feminine subjects like maternity; that's completely different. 

INTERVIEWER

To change the subject, let's talk about cigarettes. Have you always been a smoker?

SARRAUTE

Alas! I shouldn't smoke, but I don't smoke a lot. Six or seven cigarettes a day. That's still too much. I have a very bad habit. So, in order not to smoke, I've taken to holding the cigarette in my mouth while I work. I don't light it. That gives me the same effect. Because I forget. I feel something and I forget if it's lit. Since I smoke very weak cigarettes, and I don't swallow the smoke, I have just as much the impression of smoking even if it's not for real.

INTERVIEWER

As if it enters into the game, in effect.

SARRAUTE

That's right. It's a gesture, something one feels.

INTERVIEWER

You have written all your books, from the first to the latest in the same café, where you work every day. Why not at home? 

SARRAUTE

At first because the house was full of children; my husband was a lawyer and received his clients here, so I couldn't work. Going to a café is like traveling—you get out of your own environment and its distractions. Writing is difficult; it is like jumping into the void. One tries to avoid it by any means—looking for a lost piece of paper, making a cup of tea, anything. In a café you jump in. Nobody disturbs me there and I don't hear the conversations. I had the same set-up in the country, until one day they installed a jukebox in the café where I worked, and that does stop you from thinking. So I arranged a cowshed across the courtyard, and every morning I go there and work. 

INTERVIEWER

You were blessed with a happy marriage for sixty years. Do you think it helped your writing by giving you a secure emotional background?

SARRAUTE

I don't use words like happiness or love, with capital letters. I can only say that there was a great understanding between us, and that I received complete support from him about literature.

INTERVIEWER

You have also been blessed with vigorous health and a long life. Do you ever think about death?

SARRAUTE

At my age if you don't think about death, what do you think about?

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in an afterlife?

SARRAUTE

I have never been a believer. For me death is the end. But one can't know. I do think that those who have faith, who go towards God, are lucky.

INTERVIEWER

Could we speak about the conception of some of your books? Did The Golden Fruits, for example, come out of an experience with the literary world?

SARRAUTE

Not at all. I take no part in the literary world; I've never gone to the literary cocktail parties. That book has to do with an inner experience. It has to do with a kind of terrorism around a work of art that is lauded to the skies and which we cannot approach. Where there is a sort of curtain of stipulated opinions that separates you from that work. Either we adore it or else we detest it; it's impossible to come near it, because above all in the Parisian milieu, even without going to the cocktail parties, even in the press, there reigns a kind of terrorism of general adulation, and you don't have the right to have a contrary opinion, to draw near it. And then it falls, and at that moment you no longer have the right to say that it's good. That's what I wanted to show—this life of a work of art. And this work of art, what is it? I'd have to draw near it, but that's impossible. And then all that we find there, all that we look for in a book, has nothing to do with its literary value.

INTERVIEWER

There is often a multitude of voices in that book.

SARRAUTE

It's like that in most of my books that come later. There are all these voices without our needing to take an interest in the characters that speak them. It doesn't much matter.

INTERVIEWER

Have there been processes that repeat themselves, either in the conception or in the elaboration of the novels?

SARRAUTE

Each time it didn't interest me to continue doing the same thing. So, I would try to extend my domain to areas that were always at the same level of these interior movements, to go into regions where I hadn't yet gone.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been surprised by the fate of one of your books?

SARRAUTE

No. I was more pessimistic at the start. I really thought that it would not be at all understood. 

INTERVIEWER

You've said that the nouveau roman movement helped you to get read. But did the idea of belonging to a so-called movement constrain you as well?

SARRAUTE

No. And none of those who belonged, who were classed in this movement, as you've been able to see, have written things that resemble each other—whatever it may be. They've remained completely different from each other, and have continued each one in his own path. 

INTERVIEWER

Your essays were among the first to speak of concerns common to the group. Have you ever felt any sort of responsibility to this movement?

SARRAUTE

Not at all. I had reflected upon these questions about the novel before the others, because the others were twenty years younger than me. I haven't changed my way of thinking since my first books, I haven't budged. I could repeat exactly the same things I said when I wrote “The Age of Suspicion.” It is a deep conviction that the forms of the novel must change, that it's necessary that there be a continual transformation of the forms, in all the arts—in painting, in music, in poetry, and in the novel. That we cannot return to the forms of the nineteenth century and set another society in them, it doesn't matter which. So, that interested Alain Robbe-Grillet—he's the one who did a lot to launch the nouveau roman. He was working at Les Éditions de Minuit; he wanted to republish Tropisms, which had been out of print. It came out at the same time as Jealousy, and at that moment in Le Monde a critic had written, “That is what we can call the nouveau roman,” though he detested it. It was a name that suited Robbe-Grillet quite well; he said, That's magnificent, it's what we need. He wanted to launch a movement. Me, I'm incapable of launching a movement. I've always been very solitary. 

INTERVIEWER

Were there ever any meetings of the group?

SARRAUTE

Never. Nor discussions. It had nothing in common with the Surrealists, where there was a group, a leader—André Breton, nothing of the kind. We never saw each other.

INTERVIEWER

How did Robbe-Grillet find all the writers to bring them together as a movement? 

SARRAUTE

It was Les Éditions de Minuit. Robbe-Grillet found Michel Butor, who had written Passage de Milan, which they published. He found Claude Simon. Robert Pinget as well. Robbe-Grillet and Jérôme Lindon, who is the director of Les Éditions de Minuit, worked together. Like that they formed a sort of group.

INTERVIEWER

Have there been other experimental literary movements that have interested you?

SARRAUTE

No, I passed entirely beside that. The Surrealist movement, for example, might have interested me, but it didn't at all.

INTERVIEWER

What about the Oulipo movement in the 1960s, which included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino?

SARRAUTE

I liked what Queneau was doing a lot. As I mentioned, my first book, Tropisms, appeared in the same collection as his book The Bark Tree, with the publisher Robert Denoël, and I quite liked The Bark Tree.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your books do you prefer?

SARRAUTE

That's very difficult to say. I don't reread them. And sometimes I tell myself, But it seems to me I've already done something like that, and I can't recall where.

INTERVIEWER

Has one of the books satisfied you more than the others?

SARRAUTE

It's all very difficult. There are always doubts, in regard to what I wanted to do.

INTERVIEWER

Even the doubts, have they played a constructive role sometimes?

SARRAUTE

I don't know. I think it's very painful, and that it's better not to have any doubts. I envy those who don't have any; I envy them a lot. They are happy people.

INTERVIEWER

In Do You Hear Them?, it seems that every movement starts from a central balance: on one side the two friends and the pre-Colombian stone that they're admiring, and on the other side the children upstairs and their laughter. What impelled you to explore this dynamism?

SARRAUTE

I've always been interested by the relation between a work of art, the desire to communicate, and what the work of art brings you. Also, the relation between people who love each other a great deal. I thought it was an amusing construction, I don't know. Each time there is a point of departure, but you know it's hardly conscious. It comes and one doesn't know how, nor why.

INTERVIEWER

We are far from autobiography in your work; so readers and critics end up by being curious about your life. You give little importance to all that. Why, do you think, do so many serious writers insist on not writing autobiography in their books?

SARRAUTE

I think that in every book we put a lot of experience that we have ourselves lived more or less, or imagined ourselves, that there is not a single book that doesn't contain an experience. Even with Kafka. Kafka didn't live The Trial, but there is a whole universe in which he lived, which was close to him and which he translated in The Trial, or The Castle. It's a transposition; it's a metaphor for something that he felt very strongly, and that we all feel as well.

INTERVIEWER

But it seems sometimes there is a sort of mistrust of autobiography.

SARRAUTE

When it's a real autobiography. That is, one wants to display everything one has felt, how one has been. There is always a mise en scéne, a desire to show oneself in a certain light. We are so complex and we have so many facets, that what interests me in an autobiography is what the author wants me to see. He wants me to see him like that. That's what amuses me. And it's always false. I don't at all like Freud and I detest psychoanalysis, but one of Freud's statements I have always found very interesting, and true, is that all autobiographies are false. Obviously, because I can do an autobiography that will show a saint, a being who is absolutely idyllic, and I could do another that will show a demon, and it will all be true. Because it's all mixed together. And in addition, one can't even attain all that. When I wrote Childhood, I stopped at the age of twelve, precisely because it's still an innocent period in which things are not clear and in which I tried to recover certain moments, certain impressions and sensations. 

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now? 

SARRAUTE

It's something in a form that I've never used, and I don't know what it will be. I've got about two-thirds of the book now, but I'm not in so much of a hurry to finish it. I don't know what I'll do after it.

INTERVIEWER

Your book The Use of Speech recalls your first book Tropisms. Again there are brief texts completely separate from each other, though here you look at certain things around a specific word.

SARRAUTE

As it's called The Use of Speech, it always starts off from the spoken word. The word falls there like a stone and makes eddies.

INTERVIEWER

Was it conceived as a book from the start?

SARRAUTE

It was conceived in advance that each of its texts would center around a word, whereas Tropisms was not conceived in advance. There I'd written the texts one after the other, without really knowing what I was in the process of doing.

INTERVIEWER

Your most recent book, Childhood, is altogether different once again. Why did you use the form of dialogue to recall these memories?

SARRAUTE

That came about naturally, because I told myself it's not possible for you to write that. Until that point, I'd always written fiction. I had a great freedom; I invented situations in which I placed under a certain light things that interested me. And in Childhood I would be bound to something that was fixed, that was already past. It was the contrary of everything I'd done. So I told myself, You cannot do that. I noted down this dialogue, and it served me for the start of my book. After that, all through the book I had this second conscience, which was a double of myself, and which controls what I'm doing, which helps me advance.

INTERVIEWER

The memories in the book often work like tropisms. 

SARRAUTE

I chose memories where there were tropisms, as much as possible. That's what interested me. It gives movement to the form.