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  • "Says Who?":Nathalie Sarraute's Voices Off
  • Paul Dean (bio)

Inclusion in the prestigious Pléiade editions of French classics, with their exhaustive bibliographical and critical apparatus, is the literary equivalent of admission to the Pantheon and is rarely granted to living authors. When Gallimard decided to make an exception of Nathalie Sarraute—novelist, dramatist, and critic—in 1996, they must have felt confident, given that the author was in her 96th year, that a second edition would not be needed. With wonderfully mischievous timing, Sarraute published Ouvrez in 1997, two years before her death, and this was duly incorporated in the revised Oeuvres complètes (2011). Now, Ann Jefferson, Emeritus Professor of French at Oxford, and one of the contributing editors to the Pléiade, has published a biography (Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between, Princeton University Press), which has already appeared in French, in 2019, as part of Flammarion's Grandes biographies series. A previous biography of Sarraute written by Huguette Bouchardeau figured in the same series in 2003. Unlike Jefferson, Bouchardeau was denied the cooperation of Sarraute's three daughters, and her book was never going to be more than a stopgap; even so, it seems rather ungracious that Jefferson does not even mention her.

The subtitle of Jefferson's biography, A Life Between, emphasizes the way in which Sarraute's life was pulled in different directions. Her childhood was marked by displacement and complex family relationships. She was born Natacha Tcherniak, of Russian Jewish antecedents, and an only child (an elder sister had died at three years of age). Her parents divorced when she was only two, and she went with her mother to Paris, returning to Russia for two months each year to see [End Page 579] her father, an industrial chemist. Both parents remarried, her mother becoming a writer of popular fiction. For four years she shuttled between the two families; her relationship with her younger half-siblings was distant. Finally settling in Paris in 1909, she formed a close bond with her stepmother's mother, who fostered her literary interests, and whose return to Russia was a real blow. Nathalie, as she now was, had a brilliant career at the Lycée Fénelon, excelling at French composition and absorbing a philosophy course that emphasized sensation as the conduit of the subconscious. She remained true to this tradition in her creative work and was consistently dismissive of Freud, whom she judged a reductive thinker.

After graduating in 1918 from the University of Montpellier, Nathalie enrolled at the Sorbonne to study English, but found the teaching inadequate, apart from Louis Cazamian's lectures on "literary psychology." A stay in London to perfect her grasp of the language was followed, in 1920, by a blissful year at Oxford attached to what is now St. Anne's College, initially to study chemistry, then history. After a less happy, little-documented year in Berlin, she returned to Paris in 1922 and enrolled in the Faculty of Law, also becoming a patient of the clinical psychologist Pierre Janet, who was probably treating her for neurasthenia. Jefferson was one of the few people she spoke to about this, and it throws light on the disenchanted portrayals of psychiatrists in her novels. (She would later be equally secretive about her clinical treatment for postpartum depression.) In 1925 she married Raymond Sarraute, a fellow lawyer from a Catholic background but whose mother, like her, was a Russian Jew. This was also the year she qualified, but her career as a barrister never really took off (as a Jewish woman she was doubly disadvantaged in the eyes of the establishment), and after the births of her first two daughters she increasingly devoted herself to writing. Raymond extended her knowledge of the work of Gide, and introduced her to Mauriac, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire. Poetry, however, was less important to her than poetic prose. [End Page 580]


The publication of Sarraute's first work, Tropismes, could hardly have been worse timed. It appeared in 1939 and received only one, albeit positive, review. A series of 18 brief, self-contained texts (expanded to 24 in 1957), it was an investigation into social psychology, taking...


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