Authors: Nathalie Sarraute

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French novelist and playwright

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Portrait d’un inconnu, 1948 (Portrait of a Man Unknown, 1958)

Martereau, 1953 (English translation, 1959)

Le Planétarium, 1959 (The Planetarium, 1960)

Les Fruits d’or, 1963 (The Golden Fruits, 1964)

Entre la vie et la mort, 1968 (Between Life and Death, 1969)

Vous les entendez?, 1972 (Do You Hear Them?, 1973)

“Disent les imbéciles,” 1976 (“Fools Say,” 1977)

Tu ne t’aimes pas, 1989 (You Don’t Love Yourself, 1990)

Ici, 1995 (Here, 1997)

Short Fiction:

Tropismes, 1939, revised 1957 (Tropisms, 1963)

L’Usage de la parole, 1980 (The Use of Speech, 1980)

Ouvrez, 1997


C’est beau, pb. 1973 (It’s Beautiful, 1981)

Théâtre, pb. 1978 (Collected Plays, 1980)

Pour un oui ou pour un non, pb. 1982

Radio Plays:

Le Silence, 1964 (The Silence, 1981)

Le Mensonge, 1966 (The Lie, 1981)


L’Ère du soupçon, 1956 (essays; The Age of Suspicion, 1963)

Enfance, 1984 (autobiography; Childhood, 1984)

Entretiens avec Nathalie Sarraute, 1999 (interviews)


Nathalie Sarraute (sah-roht), has often been called the mother of the French New Novel. She was born Nathalie Ilyanova Tcherniak in Russia on July 18, 1900, the daughter of Ilya Tcherniak, a chemist and owner of a dye factory, and Pauline Chatounowski. At the age of two, Sarraute’s parents were divorced, and she spent much of her childhood moving back and forth among Russia, France, and Switzerland. Sarraute’s mother eventually returned to Russia with her daughter, remarried, and published a number of novels and short stories under the male pseudonym Vichrowski. At the age of eight, Sarraute returned to Paris to live with her father in the hub of the Russian émigré community.{$I[AN]9810000831}{$I[A]Sarraute, Nathalie}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Sarraute, Nathalie}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Sarraute, Nathalie}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Sarraute, Nathalie}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Sarraute, Nathalie}{$I[tim]1900;Sarraute, Nathalie}

Nathalie Sarraute

(Library of Congress)

Sarraute studied English at the Sorbonne, history at Oxford University, and sociology at the Faculty of Letters, Berlin, before entering the University of Paris Law School in 1922. In 1925 she married Raymond Sarraute, a fellow law student. Sarraute was a member of the Paris bar for twelve years, during which time she became the mother of three daughters and began her writing career.

Her first work, Tropisms, demonstrates the theoretical and innovative approach to writing that sets Sarraute in the forefront of contemporary artists. The term “tropism” comes from the field of biochemistry and describes a preverbal, instinctive, psychic movement, as primitive and tiny as that of a plant’s response to light and water. Beneath any overt human act or word, these authentic responses prefigure the superficial, socially acceptable behavior people learn to enact. The notion of “tropisms” leads Sarraute to create worlds in which the ego and identity have little importance. In many of her works characters are indistinguishable from one another in the normal sense (their ages and occupations are not known). Instead, Sarraute focuses on their shared humanity and their repeated, habitual behavior. This close observation draws the readers into the characters’ emotions to share the experience of their pain and fear, and to laugh at their foibles.

Because she was Jewish, World War II forced Sarraute into hiding, and she spent the war years posing as a governess to her children. It was after the war that Sarraute’s real career began. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an introduction to her novel Portrait of a Man Unknown in which he coined the expression “anti-novel” to describe the rejection of nineteenth century concepts of plot and character found in her work. Although Sarraute’s writing is highly innovative, she compares herself with Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert, and Virginia Woolf, all exceptional creators of character and all experts in the use of irony.

Another important aspect of Sarraute’s writing, introduced in The Planetarium, is her sous-conversations (sub-conversations), in which there is a disjunction between the spoken words of interrupted sentences and the tropistic movements beneath. This novel serves as a good introduction to Sarraute’s work. In subsequent novels Sarraute developed her notion that humanity consists of the observers and the observed, which are constantly interchanging; her self-conscious approach to writing, in which narrators critique the novel in which they function; and her interest in suspicion, dependence, and control.

A similar premise extends and underwrites You Don’t Love Yourself. Sarraute believed that the self is really a composite of many selves. The novel’s dialogue between the selves–you, I, he, she, they, us, and we (which makes the reader part of the conversation)–arises from the multiplicity of these nameless voices that reveal the conflicting tendencies of the composite selves that are within a single personality.

In the early 1960’s Sarraute turned to playwriting; she succeeded in turning the preverbal tropisms into dialogue, first for the radio, then for the stage. Characters speak in banal, conversational language that reveals deeply hidden undercurrents in their relationships. Sarraute’s theories of narrative method, clearly expressed in the collection of essays The Age of Suspicion, have influenced a generation of subsequent writers of the New Novel including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor.

BibliographyAngelini, Eileen M. Strategies of “Writing the Self” in the French Modern Novel: C’est moi, je croi. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Sarraute is discussed along with others in the twentieth century French reassessment of the “self” and the nature of autobiography.Barbour, Sarah. Nathalie Sarraute and the Feminist Reader: Identities in Process. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1993. A feminist analysis of Sarraute’s work.Besser, Gretchen R. Nathalie Sarraute. Boston: Twayne, 1979. An analysis of Sarraute’s early work.Cothran, Ann. “Nathalie Sarraute.” In French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, compiled by Eva Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. A useful resource.Jefferson, Ann. Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Explores Sarraute’s fundamental ambivalence to differences of various kinds, including questions of gender and genre.O’Beirne, Emer. Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Discusses Sarrraute’s growing disillusion with the reader over the course of her literary career.Phillips, John. Nathalie Sarraute: Metaphor, Fairy-Tale, and the Feminine of the Text. New York: P. Lang, 1994. Discusses genre and gender in Sarraute’s work.Ramsay, Raylene. The French New Autobiographies: Sarraute, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996. A comparative study.
Categories: Authors