Tropisms (1939) by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Maria Jolas

A slim novel that comprises a literary echo of painting’s move towards abstraction.

French writer and winner of the International Prize for Literature, Nathalie Sarraute, May 4th, 1964. Author of The Golden Fruits. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

French writer and winner of the International Prize for Literature, Nathalie Sarraute, May 4th, 1964. Author of The Golden Fruits. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

When all I knew of the Nouveau Roman was the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, I felt about it as I do about erotic practices involving ropes and clamps: I didn’t doubt that others got their kicks from it, but it wasn’t really for me. As performed by Robbe-Grillet, the radical attempt to turn away from the 19th-century novel of plots and characters involved cold, meticulous descriptions of external objects, which is exactly as riveting as it sounds.

Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, however, is alluringly strange. Sarraute’s first book and the Nouveau Roman’s foundational text, Tropisms is a slim novel that took five years to write. It depicts in 24-four vignettes the doings of assorted, unnamed figures in an oneiric landscape that is by turns oppressive and mundane, “an existence like a waiting room in a deserted suburban railway station”. Sarraute wrote each piece in order to express in image and drama the pre-verbal, “instinctual movements” that, she thought, arise from the unconscious and “constitute the secret source of our existence”. A fellow denizen of Left Bank cafes, Jean-Paul Sartre reportedly said of Sarraute’s work, “it is existence itself”.

Her ambition to observe and express these unconscious movements never abated

Taking the modernist interiorities of Proust, Woolf and Joyce to a deeper, weirder place, Tropisms is a literary echo of painting’s move towards abstraction. Despite Sarraute’s insistence on the work’s hermetic, essential nature, a recognisable world glancingly shines through the slats. Here and there, proper nouns appear amid the mysterious toings and froings: locations in Paris; famous writers.

The term “tropisms”, which in biology denotes the motions of plants and organisms prompted by external stimuli, became a lifelong meme for Sarraute. Her ambition to observe and express these unconscious movements never abated. If Sarraute did not explain her intentions in the theoretical essays she began writing in the late 1940s, would we understand Tropisms to be the imagistic expression of inner “tropisms”? And if not, does that diminish the work’s value? More uncertainties, provoked by a novel that imprints the mind with the shape a question mark.

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