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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Nathalie Sarraute The Planetarium (1959)

 

‘Nathalie Sarraute is associated with the nouveau roman scene, 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 (a brilliant point in itself, I’d say).

‘These characters live in a mix of self-abasement and self-aggrandizing. They are the twin of Dostoyevsky’s underground man. When trying to express the wrongs that have been done to them, they compare themselves to Caesar – that’s their manner of talking. There are hints of self-understanding, but as soon as something like the voice of conscience worms into their blabbering reality, they take care to belittle it. The little there is of clarity, is brushed aside – in the name of “God, I’m a nasty person” and “well, I’m not that bad, after all, am I?” I’m sure you recognize this pattern from Notes from the underground.

‘Sarraute’s story (or anti-story) is set against the backdrop of the “decency”, the preoccupations, of bourgeoise life. Of what I’ve said so far, it might not have appeared as if she’s interested in social critique – but in my opinion, she is. To make a name for oneself, to succeed, to fit in. The ever recurring easy chairs bring to mind a leisurly life, but for Alain & his ilks, life cannot be too leisurly (that would signify decadence). Alain himself is constantly blamed for being an effeminate good-for-nothing, too attached to nice things (too like his aunt Berthe). Alain is a worrying reminder in the heads of others. Alain’s sleazy leather chairs constitute a reminder of himself, the way he understand himself, the way others impose their pictures of him on him. It is, thus, no coincidence that the leather chairs form the centre of the book. They stand for something that the characters are, but that they, at the same time, want to turn away from. The chairs are eponymous of the embarrassment, the shame felt by the characters in relation to themselves & others.

‘One of the interesting things about the book, and I understand it as no mere stylistic tool, is that it is not always clear whose perspective is presented. In this way, the reader is invited to reflect on the world of the different characters – how similar the characters are, because they share everything: envy, disgust, grudge. Is this yet another book, elevating alienation to the status of “authentic being”? Nope. The characters of the book are depicted as closed systems, planets, who have no real contact with each other besides that of envying & holding a grudge against everyone they know (and everyone they don’t know, too). All confrontations end with anti-climax, a form of spiritual suffocation. These people treat each other as means-to-an-end -Sarraute brings out the absurdity in this, and this she does better than anyone. Sarraute is no Sartre, no Camus, even though her book shares with them some main themes.

‘In one especially devastating scene, Alain, the failed academic, receives some visitors in his crammed apartment. His artsy-fartsy “friends” pay him a visit with the sole intention of humiliating him, of relishing his crazed demeanour. Alain is embarrassed. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. He is ashamed of his furniture. His friends ridicule his attempts at respectability.

“Good evening…delighted…Good evening…Why, not at all, come in…No, you’re not disturbing me…Certainly not, what an idea, you know quite well that I’m very glad…” His smile is edgy, constrained, he feels this, his voice is badly pitched… He offers them seats, clumsily displaces an easy chair, he all but knocks over a small center table which, calmly, skillfully, they catch just in time, set straight again, all his gestures are jerky, awkward, his eyes must have a feverish light in them…

‘But what kind of petty novel is it that revolves around furniture? Well, Sarraute’s style is more stringent, more systematic than most of the things I’ve read in my life. The broken, dissociated sentences mould the precise, yet somehow streaming, language. I don’t mean that she strangles the life of her characters (or, well – a little…) – their lifelessness is part of the perspective she conjures up. Resentment: dying, while struggling to keep up the appearence of projects, initiatives, activity. She writes about the way self-deception can be seen as a kind of death (hello, Mr. Kierkegaard). In this respect, she is not cynical at all, even though her novel is no-nonsense darkness.’ — M. Lindman

 

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Further

Nathalie Sarraute @ Wikipedia
Nathalie Sarraute by Hannah Arendt
Nathalie Sarraute @ Jewish Women’s Archive
Lessons with Nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process
Conversations avec Nathalie Sarraute
Obituary Nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute, The Art of Fiction No. 115
Audio: Nathalie Sarraute (1/4) Fragments de vie
L’objet lumineux dans l’œuvre de Nathalie Sarraute
Le bout de la langue: A propos de Nathalie Sarraute
L’ÈRE LIBRE DE NATHALIE SARRAUTE
NATHALIE SARRAUTE ET « LE PLUS SIMPLE DES MÉLANGES » : ANDROGYNIE ET HOMOSEXUALITÉ LATENTE DANS MARTEREAU ET LE PLANÉTARIUM
Nathalie Sarraute @ goodreads
Buy ‘The Planetarium’

 

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Extras


Radioscopie : Nathalie Sarraute (1989)


Nathalie Sarraute – Entretien Agora


INVITEE : SARRAUTE

 

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Interview
from Itineraries of a Hummingbird

 

In your books you have a very fine ear, for the interior voices as well as for the development of the text. Another domain of listening, of course, is music. Do you listen much to music?

I like music a lot, almost too much. Sometimes so much even that it gives me a sort of feeling of anguish. But I haven’t listened a lot, partly because of that. It’s quite curious, the effect it has on me. And precisely in the works I prefer, it’s a sort of anguish that I never have from painting, which always gives me a feeling of eternity, security, peace. Of immobility. I love painting a great deal. Music at times reaches something that is almost superhuman, divine. One listens to Mozart and says, It’s not possible that a human being did that.

Were you ever tempted to write another sort of literature, such as the fantastic?

Not at all. Because each instant of the real world is so fantastic in itself, with all that’s happening inside it, that it’s all I want.

At the time of your first book, Tropisms, what was your rapport with the literary world?

I didn’t know anyone, not a single writer. I didn’t meet Sartre until the war. After the Liberation, he wrote the preface for my first novel, Portrait of a Man Unknown (1947).

How did you arrive at the form of those first short texts?

The first one came out just as it is in the book. I felt it like that. Some of the others I worked on a lot.

And why did you choose the name Tropisms?

It was a term that was in the air, it came from the sciences, from biology, botany. I thought it fit the interior movement that I wanted to show. So when I had to come up with a title in order to show it to publishers, I took that.

How did you know what they were at the time, these tropisms? How did you know when you’d found one?

I didn’t always know, I might discover it in the writing. I didn’t try to define them, they just came out like that.

The tropisms often seem to work through a poetic sensibility.

I’ve always thought that there is no border, no separation, between poetry and prose. Michaux, is he prose or poetry? Or Francis Ponge? It’s written in prose, and yet it’s poetry, because it’s the sensation that is carried across by way of the language.

With the tropisms, did you feel that it was fiction? Did you wonder what to call it?

I didn’t ask myself such questions, really. I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we enclosed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.

Did you sense at the time that was the direction your work would go?

I felt that a path was opening before me, and which excited me. As if I’d found my own terrain, upon which I could move forward, where no one had gone prior to me. Where I was in charge.

Were you already wondering how to use that in other contexts such as a novel?

Not at all. I thought only of writing short texts like that. I couldn’t imagine it possible to write a long novel. And after, it was so difficult finding these texts, each time it was like starting a new book all over again, that I told myself perhaps it would be interesting to take two semblances of characters who were entirely commonplace as in Balzac, a miser and his daughter, and to show all these tropisms that develop inside of them. That’s how I wrote Portrait of a Man Unknown.

In effect, one could say that all or most tropisms we might find in people could also be found in a single person.

Absolutely. I’m convinced that everyone has it all in himself, at that level. On the exterior level of action, I don’t for a minute think that Hitler is like Joan of Arc. But I think that at that deep level of tropisms, Hitler or Stalin must have experienced the same tropisms as anyone else.

The tropisms would seem to enter the domain of the social sciences as well.

Yes. I’ve become more accessible, besides. It used to be entirely closed to people. For a long time people didn’t get inside there, they couldn’t manage to really penetrate these books.

Why do you think that is?

Because it’s difficult. Because I plunge in directly, without giving any reference points. One doesn’t know where one is, nor who is who. I speak right away of the essential things, and that’s very difficult. In addition, people have the habit of looking for the framework of the traditional novel—characters, plots—and they don’t find any, they’re lost.

That brings up the question of how to read these books. You do without plot, for example.

There is a plot, if you like, but it’s not the usual plot. It is the plot made up of these movements between human beings. If one takes an interest in what I do, one follows a sort of movement of dramatic actions which takes place at the level of the tropisms and of the dialogue. It’s a different dramatic action than that of the traditional novel.

You’ve said that you prefer a relatively continuous reading of your books. But all reading is a somewhat fragmentary experience. With a traditional novel, when one picks it up again to continue reading, there are the characters and the plot to situate oneself, where one left off. In your books, do you see other ways of keeping track of where one was?

I don’t know. I don’t know how one reads it. I can’t put myself in the reader’s place, to know what he’s looking for, what he sees. I have no idea. I never think of him when I’m writing. Otherwise, I’d be writing things that suit him and please him. And for years he didn’t like it, he wasn’t interested.

Even after several books you weren’t discouraged?

No, not at all. I was always supported, all the same, from the start. With Portrait of a Man Unknown, I was supported by Sartre. At the time, Sartre was the only person who was doing something about literature, he had a review. My husband as well was tremendously supportive, from the very start. He was a marvelous reader for me, he always encouraged me a great deal. That was a lot. It suffices to have one reader, who realizes what you want to do. So, it was a great solitude, if you like, but deep down inside it wasn’t solitude. Sartre was impassioned by Portrait of a Man Unknown. So, that was very encouraging. Then when Martereau (1953) was done, Marcel Arland was very excited and had it published with Gallimard. He was editing the Nouvelle Revue Française at the time. I always had a few enthusiastic readers. When Tropisms came out, I received an enthusiastic letter from Max Jacob, who at the time was very admired as a poet. I can’t say it was a total solitude.

Did Sartre or others try to claim you as an existentialist?

No, not at all. He had published the beginning of Portrait of a Man Unknown in his review, Les Temps Modernes, and then he wrote the preface because he wanted to. And he told me, “Above all, they shouldn’t think it’s a novel that was influenced by existentialism.” Which couldn’t be the case, because Tropisms came out almost the same time as Nausea.

It was rather another existentialism.

He was entirely conscious of that. And very honestly he said, “It is existence itself.”

Would it be possible to use the tropisms in a more traditional novel?

I don’t see how. What interest would there be? Because in a more traditional novel, one shows characters, with personality traits, while the tropisms are entirely minute things that take place in a few instants inside of anybody at all. What could that bring to the description of a character? On the contrary.

As if at the moment of the tropisms, the character vanishes.

He disintegrates, before the extraordinary complexity of the tropisms inside of him.

Which is what happens in Martereau.

Martereau disintegrates. And in Portrait of a Man Unknown, the old man, the father, becomes so complex that the one who’s looking to see inside of him abandons his quest, and at that moment we end up with a character out of the traditional novel, who ruins everything. In Martereau, it’s the character out of the traditional novel who disintegrates at the end.

Yet in The Planetarium (1959), it seems that more than ever you’re using traditional characters.

On purpose. Since they are semblances, it’s called The Planetarium, and is made up of false stars, in imitation of the real sky. We are always for each other a star, like those we see in a planetarium, diminished, reduced. So, they see each other as characters, but behind these characters that they see, that they name, there is the whole infinite world of the tropisms, which I tried to show in there.

Considering the interior nature of your writing, has it sometimes been difficult to remain at such depths?

No, what is difficult is being on the surface. One gets bored there. There are a lot of great and admirable models who block your way. And once I rise to the surface, to do something on the surface, it’s easy, but it’s very tedious and disappointing.

In Portrait of a Man Unknown the specialist consulted by the narrator tells him: “Beware of this taste for introversion, for daydreaming in the void, which is nothing but an escape before the effort.”

Yes, because he feels that he is marginal, he feels that he’s not normal. It’s entirely ironic. He goes to see a psychiatrist who tries to put him on the right path. In my books there are always these normal people who don’t understand these tropisms, who don’t feel them.

With Portrait of a Man Unknown, had you decided to avoid using characters?

No, on the contrary, I wanted to take semblances of characters, types, the miser for example, like Père Grandet, and then to try to see what really happens in him, which is of an enormous complexity. It is so complex that the character who is searching him out abandons the search, he can’t go on anymore. And at that moment the character from the traditional novel is introduced, who has a name, a profession, who marries the daughter, etcetera. We fall back into the traditional novel and dialogue.

While you were writing this book, did you know how it was going to end?

No, I found the ending when I got to the end. Usually, it develops like that, like an organism that develops. Often I don’t see the ending at all, it comes out of the book on its own.

You’ve said that with the novels you wrote the first draft directly from beginning to end.

At first. I always have to make a beginning that’s entirely finished, the first few pages must be fixed in place. Like a spring-board, that I take off from, I don’t rework it any further. I work on it a lot, and then it’s finished. But after that, I wrote from one end to the other. I used to work like that, not now. I wrote from one end to the other, in a form that was sometimes a bit rough, I found the general movements, and then I rewrote the whole thing. For a while now, though, I’m afraid of waiting two or three years like that before starting over. So, I write gradually, I finish each passage as I go along. I changed my system about six years ago, since The Use of Speech and Childhood.

In Martereau the narrator speaks of the importance of words, of what they hide. For Martereau, who is rather a traditional novelistic character, words are “hard and solid objects, of a single flow.” One would say that in your books you feel a certain seduction of words.

Yes, it’s words that interest me. Inevitably. It’s the very substance of my work. As a painter is interested in color and form.

 

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Book

Nathalie Sarraute The Planetarium
Dalkey Archive Press

‘The many narratives of The Planetarium, told from various points of view, revolve around a seemingly simple conceit: a young man has his heart and ambition set on his aunt’s large apartment. But, as in Sarraute’s other books, this plot forms only the surface of what is really happening. Instead, Sarraute focuses on the emotional lives and internal thoughts of her characters in a way that goes beyond what Virginia Woolf did years before.

‘The spite the young man feels toward his mother-in-law for offering him and his wife cheap chairs for their apartment; the terror inspired during a confrontation between the same young man and his aunt; and the need for approval he feels when he’s around his Gertrude Stein-like literary icon are some of the many internal conflicts that move the narrative forward through the minds of the conflicted and clashing characters.

‘Always deeply engaging, The Planetarium uses a simple plot to reveal the disparity between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.’ — DAP

 

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Excerpt

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Keatbeat, Hey, bud! 19: very interesting pick. Still no ‘3 from Hell’ for me. Gotta be a way. Missed ‘Midsummer’ so far. The French love Rammstein. Like inordinately. They’re like the sledgehammer Beatles here. Oh, Halloween stores. I can’t wait. I’m a cheap Halloween date. I have to wait a bit. But I can’t, but I will. Careful with those benzos then, man. ‘Careful with that axe, Eugene’. Like that. Happy continuing Halloween encroachment. ** Misanthrope, Yay, crowd pleasers. And quite a crowd, I may say. Sounds like fun to me: what you’re having. Aces. Say hi to everybody who’s anybody I know. Oh, Sailor Stephens, cool. I haven’t met Sailor Stephens yet, I don’t think, unless my low percentage of coffee is speaking ill to me. That’s tonight, right? Aka ‘Crowd’. Have a blast. Look for Sylvain (‘Guillaume’) and Katia (‘Roman’s Sister’). You can’t miss them. ** Sypha, Hi. Glad your tastebuds got activated. The shark one is almost surprisingly pleasurable. No pix of the Stay-Puft Ghostbusters cake? Glad to hear you’re getting your short stories mss. out there. All the luck there its with that hunt, man, obvs. On that front, we’re twinsies. ** David Ehrenstein, That’s a pretty sounding tune you linked to right there. Everyone, David E’s notorious FaBlog has taken on one of the world’s most odious politicians if not even living beings under the seductive title ‘What’s in Your Pouch, Mate?’ if you’re curious. ** Bill, Yeah, the snake one is particularly seductively reasoned out and realised, I think too. I … can only assume or possibly would even bet that the maggots are marzipan. As opposed to marshmallow, or, err, maggot. ** _Black_Acrylic, One dismembered goose head cake coming conceptually right up. Watch your imaginary doorstep. Celebratory noises on finishing the funding app. And on your happy event relocating. And all of that. Everything ‘Call’ is coming up roses. ** Okay. I’m spotlighting a great novel by the great Nathalie Sarraute today as you already know if you are reading this. Recommended? Yes, very. See you tomorrow.

8 Comments

  1. Sarraute is Superb! “The Planetarium” is Essential Reading!

  2. have you read ‘Tropismes’? i have it, or i think i do, but haven’t read. i’m quite behind on new novel. my french professor happens to be a huge fan of robbe-grillet so she lent me her french copy of ‘ the erasers’. i’ve been slowly translating it a few sentences at a time.
    this weekend i read ‘The Kiss’ by kathryn harrison. if you haven’t checked it out i say go ahead. i’m sure a wide release memoir about incest shocked the squares, but the content was less interesting than the way harrison weaved through the narrative so seamlessly. that’s nothing new, but it very much reminded me of the structural success of mclanahan’s ‘The Sarah Book’.
    my car’s finally fixed i just need to find a way to pick it up. think i might catch a bus later, then go see miike’s newest ‘First Love’.

  3. Hey, this book sounds interesting, I might have to look into it when I’m not so swamped… right now I’m reading the new Annotated Lovecraft book that just came out, which is like 500 or so pages long, ha ha… but I think this is the last “big book” I need to get through this year.

    Dennis, I’ve posted the Stay-Puft cake on Facebook before, but you may have missed it… later on today I’ll repost it and tag you so you’ll be guaranteed to see it, ha ha.

    Yesterday I began making a list of every film I’ve ever seen. I’m up to over 550! I think by the time I’m done the final number will be somewhere in the 600-700 range. Obviously I can’t remember EVERY film I’ve ever seen, but from 1990 onwards, my memory is good, and I have a lot of things I can look into (old ticket stubs, diary entries, film class syllabuses, and so on) to fill in the blank spaces.

  4. Re: Rammstein, the leftist German YouTuber Three Arrows made a half-hour video essay about their epic “Deutschland” video. I was impressed by the clip , but obviously, I’m missing the details that a German would pick up on.

    Have you ever done a Damon Packard day? He’s getting a retrospective at Spectacle now. I’m hoping to write about FATAL PULSE, which will get its NYC theatrical premiere there next month, somewhere.

  5. Tonight I watched a vintage giallo named The Designated Victim starring your boy Pierre Clementi as a debauched count plotting murder. Lush Venetian locations and PC looked great, although his voice was dubbed with a ridiculous English accent for no good reason. Not seen this type of film for a while and it feels good to be back on the giallo train.

  6. Mon cher! I do admit a certain favor for feet. Not really a favor but a bit of focus. In grown toenails as a kid. Everyone gave 3 From Hell a hard time and it’s totally fun, and blatently unapologetic. Do not forget losmovies.com. Got lost looking for a Halloween store today and found a lake lol. I’ll be you are stoked. I was looking at old masks the other day and got it for a second, then a tookie jumped out and I ran away. Rammstein! I used to think them a just a triviality or novelty for the “bad kids”. But it seems they’re kind of neat. Haha, I had a great time with the German boys. “Quit dreaming of Jewish boys and go and scream in the park.” Germany is too opulant for my tastes though really, I always were a diamonds kind of girl. Haha, ol’ Keaton has come of age. The years have taken their toll. According to my doctors benzos are all I’m allowed or I will be es mort! Haha, olt schoolz D. I’ll have to have another listen to that one. Only book I ever owned that truly toffeed. The Golden Fruits. Thanks for this post. I will check it out. P.S. I took a good sleep last evening after a movie, Low Tide, starring Jaedon Martell. It could have been called, “Jaedon Poses.” “Jaedon Plays With The Older Boys” “Jaedon Goes To The Hot Dog Stand”. So I had this dream, me and the boys in the band took off for this party. And it was a recording party being thrown by the Dead Milkmen. The party got really turnt. I walked around naked most of the time and they were just like who’s the naked indian? My guitarist friend pushed a car off a hill and got a tattoo at the party. I eventually put on some clothes when Jaedon arrived and we talked throughout the dream. Going ghost hunting, bon soir.

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