Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spotlight on ... Nathalie Sarraute's 'The Planetarium'


Nathalie Sarraute (born 1900) was one of the seminal figures in the emergence of France's "Nouveau Roman" ("New Novel") in the 1950s. Her work included not only novels but also plays and influential essays on literary theory. Tropismes (1939), a collection of sketches, introduced her idea of tropisms, the "things that are not said and the movements that cross our consciousness very rapidly." Discarding conventions of plot, chronology, characterization, and point of view, her novels — including Portrait of a Man Unknown (1948), Martereau (1953), Le planétarium (1959), and Here (1997) — and her plays focus on the unspoken "subconversations" in human interactions.

Nathalie Sarraute: Bio & further info
'The Planetarium' @ Dalkey Archive
Nathalie Sarraute inteviewed @ Artful Dodge
'Reading Nathalie Sarraute', by John Taylor
'Nathalie Sarraute and England', by Barbara Wright

Brief portrait/interview (1:00)

'In photographs, Nathalie Sarraute stares out at us with the impassiveness of sculpture. Etched with elegantly weathered lines, her face surrounds a gaze that is frank and, one suspects, unsparing; her assured bearing suggests an impeccable if somewhat mannish grande dame. In her work, likewise, she projected an air of imperiousness, of godlike detachment. In her first book, Tropisms (1939), she gave birth to a genre wholly her ownóan amalgam of fictional sketch, prose poem, essay, and deadpan transcription of everyday speech. The daring on display in everything she wrote, her cerebral rigor as both novelist and playwright, and the crystalline austerity of her prose style collectively imparted the forbidding aura of a remote, trenchant intelligence. ... She regarded the true artist as both conquering explorer and alienated misfit. Her resounding credo, delivered in a lecture praising Virginia Woolf -- "Every work of literature, like every work of art, consists in revealing an unknown reality" -- finds variant and more complex expression toward the end of her essay "What Birds See": "It can also happen . . . that isolated, maladjusted, lonely individuals, morbidly attached to their childhood, withdrawn into themselves and cultivating a more or less conscious taste for a certain form of defeat, by giving in to an apparently useless obsession, succeed in digging up and laying bare a fragment of reality that is still unknown." The exemplary writer is poised midway between triumph and defeat, agency and passivity, the formative attachments of the past and the unearthing of a new understanding.' -- James Gibbons, Bookforum

(the entirety)

'Nathalie Sarraute is associated with the nouveau roman movement, but she was inspired by Proust and Virginia Woolf. That is obvious in her book The Planetarium, which was published in 1959. Stylistically, the novel builds on a form of stream-of-consciousness. The story - what little there is of it - is told from the point of view of the characters of the book. But, really, this is not a narrative. If I were asked to sum up the story, I'd say it's about leather chairs, English club style. Door handles. A crammed apartment. That's about it.

'On a more philosophical level, the novel explores a world of resentment. A young, procrastinating academic, and his quite anonymous wife, are offered ugly furniture by their in-laws. They live in a crammed apartment. Their eccentric aunt, who cares for nothing other than fancy furniture, offers them an apartment swop, but she regrets it instantaneously, to the bewilderment of all others, to whom she appears as a crazy hag.

'The characters in Sarraute's novel hate each other dearly. They wallow in resentment and self-loathing. Their world is a world of small injustices, wrongdoing and pay-back. Malice. The real tense in the story is due to the different perspectives, clashing against each other. Sarraute's novel analyzes the way self-understanding & the way we understand others are connected, intertwined. But there's not much understanding here, even though there is a lot of psychological scrutinizing, mapping. The characters understanding of each others are connected with their attitudes; spite, impatience. Everything they say & think express a very intentional, but not very conscious, attempt at miscrediting everyone else. In a quite dostoyevskian way, Sarraute brings out why the characters live in a twiilght of consciousness & blindness. She describes a form of consciousness that comes to nothing, because it is expressive of the desire to destroy and to hide. One verb sums it all up: to beguile. Social calculation that never really works the way it is intended to - because it can't.' -- This empty flow


What matters, is that tiny thing, that mysterious gleam, that sparkle, that hidden, secret jewel ... he discerns it anywhere, it shines, it scintillates timidly in the most wretched little slattern, in the saddest little monkey-face ... he possesses a sorcerer's wand, a dowser's rod which permits him to discover it, a powerful searchlight which peers into them, which seeks, but what does it hope to find? ... One is afraid, one feels like hiding ... One would like to help him, to guide him ... Is it that? An elf, a mysterious being, a delicate dancing flame? ... But they need not fear, he is never wrong. It's there in them, whatever they do, he sees it ...

o, really, try as you might, you could find nothing to say against it, it’s perfect . . . a real surprise, a piece of luck . . . an exquisite combination, that velvet curtain, made of very heavy velvet, the best quality wool velvet, in a deep green, quiet and unobtrusive . . . And at the same time, a warm luminous shade . . . Marvelous against the gold glints of the beige wall . . . And the wall itself . . . How effective . . . You’d think it was skin . . . It’s as soft as chamois . . . One should always insist on that extremely fine stenciling, the tiny dots give a texture like down . . . But how dangerous, how mad, really, to choose from samples, to think that she had been within a hair’s breadth—and how delightful it is to think back on it now—of taking the almond green. Or worse than that, the other, the one that tended towards emerald . . . Wouldn’t that be something, a blue green against this beige wall . . . It’s funny how this one, looked at it in a small piece, had seemed lifeless, faded . . . What misgivings, what hesitations . . . And now, quite obviously, it was just what was wanted . . . Not the least bit faded, it looks almost bright, shimmery, against this wall . . . exactly the way she had imagined it the first time . . . That was a brilliant idea of hers . . . after all the trouble, all the looking round—it became a real obsession, she thought of nothing else no matter what she was looking at—and there, at the sight of that green wheat gleaming and rippling under the cool little wind in the sunlight, at the sight of that strawstack, it had come to her all of a sudden . . . it was that—in slightly different shades—but that, in fact, was the idea . . . exactly what was wanted . . . and the green velvet curtain and the wall a gold like that of the straw, only softer in tone, a little nearer to beige . . . now this brightness, this shimmer, this luminosity, this exquisite freshness, like a caress, they too come from there, from that straw and from that field, she has succeeded in robbing them of all that, in capturing it, standing rooted there on the road looking at them, and she has brought it back here, to her little nest, it’s hers now, it belongs to her, she holds it fondly to her, she snuggles up to it . . . She’s made in such a way, and she knows it, that she can only look attentively and lovingly at what she can appropriate to herself, at what she can possess . .. It’s like the door . . . but one thing at a time . . . she’s coming to that, there’s no need to hurry, it’s so delightful to go back over things, to relish them—now that everything has turned out so well, that all obstacles have been cleared—to go back over each thing, one by one, slowly . . . this door . . . while the others were admiring stained glass windows, columns, arches, tombs—nothing bores her so much as cathedrals, statues . . . ice-cold, impersonal, distant . . . nothing much to be got from them, not even from the stained glass windows which are nearly always too bright in color, too gaudy . . . as for painting, they’re not so bad, although the color combinations are more than often strange, disconcerting or just plain ugly, shocking . . . however, you can still occasionally get ideas from them, as for instance those flea-greens and purples in the dresses of the women kneeling beside the cross, they were really darned nice, although you had to look twice, and be very wary, you risk something in the way of disappointments . . . that day in that cathedral, she would never have believed it . . . but she had really been repaid for her discomfort—it was freezing cold—and her boredom . . . that little door in the thickness of the wall in the back of the cloister . . . made of dark wood, solid oak, in a delightful oval shape, and glossy with age . . . it was so intimate, so mysterious . .. she would have liked to take it, to carry it away with her . . . have it in her home . . . but where? . . . she had squatted down on a piece of broken column to think about it, when all at once, and why not? nothing was simpler, she had found the very place . . . they would only have to change the little door of the dining-room that leads into the pantry . . . cut an oval opening, order a door like this one in beautiful solid oak, in a slightly lighter shade, a lovely warm shade . .. . she had seen it all at one glance, everything together . . . the green curtain opening and closing before the big square bay giving on to the vestibule, instead of double glass doors with awful little gathered curtains (it’s really terrible, the things people used to do, and to think that we got accustomed to them, we didn’t notice them, but one look was enough), the walls repainted a golden beige and, at the other end of the room, this door, exactly the same, with medallion-shaped bas-reliefs, in beautiful solid oaks . . . It’s a fact that things, the good as well as the bad, always come to you in series . . . This summer, they came one right after the other and it had all turned out beyond her fondest hopes . . . The whole effect will be enchanting and the door will be the best part of all . . . How impatient, how excited she was a little while ago, when they brought it, while they carefully took off the tarpaulin in which it was wrapped . . . their delicate, precise gestures, their calm . . . excellent workmen who know all the secrets of their trade, who love it, it’s always best to deal with reputable firms . . . they unwrapped it gently and it appeared, more beautiful than she had imagined it, flawless, entirely new, unblemished . . . the beautifully rounded convex bas-reliefs, carved in the thickness of the oak, brought out its fine veining . . . you would have thought it was watered silk it was so glossy, so lustrous . . . it was stupid of her to have been so afraid, this door had nothing in common—what an idea to even have imagined it, but she had begun to see oval doors everywhere, she had never seen so many, it’s enough to think about a thing for you to begin to see nothing but that—nothing in common, absolutely nothing, with the oval doors she had seen in suburban bungalows, in country houses, hotels, even at her hairdresser’s . . . her fright, when, seated under the dryer, she had noticed just in front of her, an oval door of veneered wood, it looked so fake . . . so vulgar, pretentious . . . she had had a shock: the oval opening was all ready, it was too late . . . she had run to the telephone . . . why, of course not, one gets upset over nothing at all, her decorator was right, everything depends on the surroundings, so many things enter into play . . . this beautiful piece of oak, this wall, this curtain, this furniture, these little odd pieces, what has all this got to do with a hairdresser’s parlor . . . one should rather think of the Romanesque doors in stately old mansions, or in châteaux . . . No, she has no need to worry, the whole thing is perfect taste, quiet, distinguished . . . she feels like running . . . now is the moment, she can go home, they’ve had ample time to finish . . . everything must be ready . . .

The exquisite excitement, the confidence, the joy that she feels as she goes up the stairs, takes her key from her bag, opens her door, she has often noticed it, they’re a good sign, an auspicious portent: it’s as though a fluid emanated from you that acts upon things and person from afar, an amenable universe, peopled with favorable genii, falls harmoniously into place about you.

1 comment:

Kyle Brod said...

"impassiveness of sculpture" - i think i've heard someone describe joan didion that way. i started reading the planetarium a couple weeks ago. i asked my french instructor if she had read sarraute, she said no, she had seen her on tv many times and didn't like the look of her.