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Nathalie Sarraute—Criticism and the "Terrible Desire to Establish Contact" Ann Jefferson For Valerie Minogue LJ ERE DU SOUPÇON is one of the most cited critico-theoretical accounts of the novel in the post-war period. On its publication in 1956 it was read as a timely diagnosis of an entire genre which had come to be perceived as being in crisis, and as a programme for its renewed development.1 Subsequently, and more specifically, it was seen as articulating some of the basic premises of the nouveau roman as it emerged in the late 1950s. And it has provided critics and readers of Nathalie Sarraute's novels with cues and handles on what might otherwise have seemed a perplexing and difficult literary phenomenon. It is as hard to imagine reading Sarraute's fiction without L'Ere du soupçon as it is to read Madame Bovary without the Correspondance, or A la Recherche without Contre Sainte-Beuve, and over the years the book has been allowed to settle without contest into the theoretical half of a theory-and-practice approach to the novel. In short, its status has largely been that of "un traité du roman" (as Jean-Yves Tadié has called it),2 and the ideas contained in this "treatise" have become familiar and crucial points of reference in the critical landscape that surrounds Sarraute's fiction: the attack on Balzacian characterisation, the defence of a new so-called "tropistic" view of psychology based on anonymity, the discussion of dialogue in the novel with its attendant specifically Sarrautean terminology of "conversation" and "sous-conversation," the redefinition of realism as a preoccupation with form, and, finally, the general conception of the novel as essentially innovatory and experimental . There is little point, then, in rehearsing once again the critical and theoretical content of these essays. Instead I want to change the terms of the discussion and ask not what Nathalie Sarraute's critical writing says, but rather what it does. The question then becomes: what kind of function do the essays fulfill, rather than what kind of argument do they contain ? This is, of course, already a very Sarrautean approach to the question : according to L'Ere du soupçon itself, words are a form of action, 44 Summer 1996 Jefferson whether it be as the agent of "innumerable small crimes" ("Conversation " 122), or more neutrally as the medium for the "jeu d'actions et de réactions' ' by means of which language becomes for the novelist "Ie plus précieux des instruments" (123).3 In attempting to explore this view of Sarraute's criticism as something that "does" as well as something that "says," I propose to look first at how criticism is represented and defined as an activity within Sarraute's work as a whole (fictional and critical), and then to examine more specifically what role it can be seen to have in relation to the novels themselves. I shall be basing my comments not just on L'Ere du soupçon but on all Sarraute's published essays as well as three of her unpublished lectures which together form the corpus for the criticism section of the Pléiade volume." The point behind this is not only to establish a more complete picture of a body of Sarrautean theory, but, more importantly, by approaching her critical writings as a sequence of essays, to make the issue of their doing present from the start, and highlight their status as interventions. Until now, I have used the terms "criticism" and "theory" more or less interchangeably when talking about Sarraute's non-fictional writing; but while the essays are not strictly critical in the sense that they are not primarily concerned with the works of other writers, they are equally not purely theoretical to the extent, precisely, that they set themselves up against the ex nihilo, programmatic or magisterial manner of theory. Although I would not wish to undersell the theoretical import of Sarraute's work in this domain, it makes better sense when looking at what this kind of writing does, to regard them as critical essays rather than theoretical pronouncements. For time and again, Sarraute's essays...


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