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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 1036-1038

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Book Review

Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance

Britain, Ireland, And Continental Europe

Emer O'Beirne. Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 259pp.

Emer O'Beirne's Reading Nathalie Sarraute contributes to Sarrautean studies as well as to narrative studies in general, particularly narrative theory focusing on issues of negotiating identity, meaning, and authority in the context of intersubjective relations. Taking into account the range of Sarraute's texts (with the exception of Ouvrez), O'Beirne analyzes the fraught dynamics between author and reader as each seeks to understand narrative meaning and assert interpretive authority. O'Beirne outlines [End Page 1036] the tensions that arise between reading and/or dialogue as desired, prescribed, and textually inscribed by the author and as defined and enacted by the reader. O'Beirne focuses on how although Sarraute makes ample use of gaps, relativized multiple voices, and open-ended narrative structures, she simultaneously reinscribes monologism, individual authority, and autonomy. Thus Sarraute's philosophies of language, identity, and communication are paradoxical: she affirms models of identity and textuality as constructed linguistically and intersubjectively while simultaneously asserting the authentic expressivity of literary discourse--of language as an individual expression.

O'Beirne demonstrates how, ironically, Sarraute ascribes inauthentic, conventional, and clich├ęd communication to her readers, such that the reader becomes an object she creates, rather than a subject she meets--a monologic and coercive move on Sarraute's part. Moreover, she desires that her readers transcend the ordinary by affirming her authentic, expressive discourse which she carefully constructs to control and guide readers' interpretations. In fact, according to O'Beirne, Sarraute's ideal reader submissively agrees to be seduced by her, even as she writes in a way that suggests looseness, spontaneity, and openness.

O'Beirne contends that when dialogue falters or even fails in Sarraute, it is because her contrasting philosophies collide in opposition, and one side predominates only by subduing or destroying the other, including the reader as other. O'Beirne contrasts Sarraute's textual strategies that seek intersubjectivity and relativized, open-ended meaning negotiations with underlying relations of domination among Sarraute's characters, narrative voices, and between author and reader. Reading Nathalie Sarraute therefore articulates some of the power struggles between author and reader overlooked in theories emphasizing the consensual and harmonious nature of dialogue or that define ideal communication according to notions of transparency, unity, and oneness.

O'Beirne underscores that the study's aim is not to condemn the paradoxes found across Sarraute's oeuvre as failed dialogic communication. Rather, O'Beirne seeks to explore what these shortcomings can explain about language and dialogue in general, particularly the coercive dimensions of author-reader relations, dialogue, and intersubjectivity. In fact, O'Beirne asserts that analyzing questions of domination and submission in dialogic communication does not negate the possibility for [End Page 1037] meaningful communication or for dialogue. Because language "speaks and constantly recreates a desire beyond itself," and because both the writer and the reader face a kind of absence, an alienation from the reception and interpretation of their address, dialogue remains a site of intersubjective negotiation. In other words, because both perfect communion and addressive control are impossible, there is a constant shifting to and fro between writer and reader: the apparent obstacles to dialogue are also its promise.

O'Beirne's analysis of Sarraute draws on a wide range of theoretical frameworks: Lacanian notions about identity as mediated through the other; Friedrich Schlegel's understanding of irony; V. N. Voloshinov and M. M. Bakhtin's theories of polyphonic democratic juxtaposition; Paul Ricoeur's interpretation theory; George Poulet's phenomenology of artwork; and reading theories from Wolfgang Iser, Jonathan Culler, Stanley Fish, and William Ray, among others. However, O'Beirne does not draw upon feminist theory, which is surprising because there are many points of connection that could further strengthen this study's central arguments. For example, despite extended use of a Lacanian lens, O'Beirne does not attend to feminist psychoanalytic theories of identity, language, or subject formation. Feminist...


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